By Samuel Ridout
Deborah and Barak: — The Triumph of Feebleness
Judges 4, 5.
The bondages under the three powers which last occupied us were largely those of Judah, or, at least, the tribes occupying the south country, of whom Judah was chief, with Benjamin and Simeon as associates. We saw that the latter two enemies — Moab and the Philistines — represented largely profession, whether the grosser form under Moab or the more refined and religious form under the Philistines. While the whole nation no doubt suffered from the bondage, yet it is evident that the entire land was not absolutely under the sway of any one power. Thus Moab and the Philistines occupied, as we have seen, the south country, and from Othniel of Judah being the deliverer from the sway of the king of Mesopotamia, it is probable that the first oppressor of Israel too was chiefly located in the south country.
The typical character of the deliverances has a close connection with the territory delivered, as we shall presently see. In all three cases the word of God was prominent: Othniel suggests the living oracle — Debir; Ehud, the sword of the Spirit, quick and powerful, and Shamgar's goad reminds us of those "words of the wise" which are like goads, piercing with their pungent exhortations. Thus the word of God is prominent throughout.
We come this evening to another section of the territory — the north country, where we will find an enemy of a different character, and different methods of warfare are used to overcome him. Let us first of all look at the North and South in the way I believe Scripture itself warrants us, for everything in the word of God has its significance.
The South is the land towards the sun. Winter and Summer the sun passes over the south country. It is a land that is accustomed to the light of the sun. The North, on the other hand, is the land that is turned away from the sun, and the very word for North, "hidden," suggests the absence of light. Thus the darkness of nature away from God is the thought, a darkness which is the result of the fall. God is light, and when man turns away from Him he is in the darkness of his own mind and his own devices.
You will find that there is a difference between the various classes of mankind. There are those who have been under the light of God's truth, who have lived, as you might say, with the blaze of divine light shining from Scripture upon them. There are others who have turned their backs upon the word of God, and are living on the dark side of the world, away from the word of God and revelation. There are thus those two sides on which we are exposed to the assaults and to the domination of spiritual enemies. We have enemies on all sides. I may hold an open Bible in my hand, but that is no guarantee that I will not have spiritual enemies who will misuse that very Word. Men may have an open Bible, as we have in this country, and yet profession may stalk abroad master of the whole situation; or ritualism even with an open Bible may claim its place as ruler over God's people. On the other hand, there is that which, as we know, denies Scripture its place and authority as the word of God, in fact, closes the book to us. This is infidelity.
That is what we have tonight. It is the northern enemy who lived in, and who gathered his power in the dark, away from the full shining of the light; the enemy who wants to rob us in every way of that light, and who wants to lay his cold hands of unbelief upon all that we hold dearest, and in that way rob us of our portion. It is the power of human intellect, as contrasted with the power of the word of God. It is the power of infidelity in all its forms, not merely the bold and blatant infidelity of the unbeliever, but any form of infidelity which has turned its back upon the word of God. You turn your back upon the light, and you are facing the North. You turn your back upon the Scriptures, and you are facing the spiritual North. You have turned your back on God's revelation, and you are left to the feeble glimmer of your own understanding.
That is the power we have to look at tonight — the power of human understanding controlling in divine things. It is a dreadful and awful power. It spreads its influence everywhere, and wherever that influence reaches, wherever man breathes it in, it exalts him at the expense of God's truth.
The king of Hazor, the king of this northern federation, has a significant name. It is Jabin, which means "understanding." What a significant kind of name for a man to have who has typically thrown up, as you might say, revelation. He does not want the light of the sun, for he has the illumination of his own understanding; he is Jabin, the king of Hazor, the king of the "enclosure," that which excludes divine revelation and is sufficient unto itself. That is very striking.
It is significant when we remember that Jabin was conquered by Joshua more than a hundred years before this time. In the conquests through which they had first taken possession of the land, they overthrew him and his people and all his chariots of war. They destroyed Hazor from off the face of the earth, and did not even inhabit it, as they did other cities. You may ask if Joshua had won the victory, if Joshua had completely overthrown Hazor, why do we hear of it again, with a king of the same name? And when we remember the spiritual meaning of the name, and the fact that for God's people, Jabin, "understanding," has been vanquished by the apostles giving us the truth, we may be tempted to ask, Can human understanding again have sway? Or, to come to individual history, if the wisdom of the carnal mind has been for us overthrown, and we have possessed that which was once held in darkness by it, can there be any danger from the same source?
Ah! brethren, Satan knows what resurrection is just as well as we do. Satan knows what the resurrection of the power of evil is that can overthrow the believer, and bring him into captivity to that same power which he had once mastered. Perhaps you know what it is to have overthrown some power of spiritual evil that had mastery over you, and had gained the victory over you, and then, having overthrown that power, you supposed it was impossible to have fallen into the same evil. Do you know what it is to awake some day and to find the enemy just as strong, the same old enemy, the same old sin!
We know something of that, surely. The Church of Christ knows something of that. I believe it is a significant lesson for us here, that the Church of Christ only too often gets into subjection to the power of an evil once completely vanquished. Is it not spiritually significant that this enemy of rationalism, of the intellect of man, the exaltation of the understanding is what brings into captivity again and again? We all pay homage to intellect, to learning and understanding. Wherever there is a spirit of unbelief able to talk a little wisely and learnedly, how easily do the people of God bow under the authority of understanding and turn their backs upon the sunshine that illumines the South country, and pay homage to the cold dark North.
That is important to remember. The intellect used away from God means infidelity, I do not care what name it is called by, for it has hundreds of names. This northern power was a confederacy. Jabin was the head of all the kings of the North. In like manner the sway of mind is called by many names. At one time it may be the Arianism that denied the divinity of our Lord at another, the deadly deism that excluded God from His own world. Later on, it may be rationalism, or, as in our own time, Higher Criticism. But whatever the form, reason, the understanding of man is exalted. They say, Of course Scripture is of great value, and, in a certain sense, authoritative but, remember, intellect comes first. That is the keynote to the whole Higher Criticism. It is that man, puny, sinful man, is capable of giving his judgment upon the word of God. Now, I do not care what place you give Scripture, if you give it a place short of the absolute perfection of God's revelation with absolute authority, you are giving it a place which Jabin himself wants it to have. Do the higher critics, for instance, tell us that they are infidels? Do they tell us that they do not believe in the Bible? No, indeed, they say they believe in the Bible more than we. They say they bring their intellect to bear upon it, and sift out of it men's thoughts, so that sitting in judgment upon it all, they tell us what is divine and what is human. Thus you have sinful man giving judgment upon the word of God. When he does this, he becomes an absolute enemy to the truth of God.
That is only one thing; it is a glaring illustration of the power of the understanding. Perhaps you and I know something of it in a minor way. Perhaps we know what it is to put our thoughts in the place of God's word. Perhaps we have felt the chilling power of this Northern foe coming in and intruding man's thoughts where God has spoken. Oh! wherever your thoughts predominate, or any man's thought, and take the place of God's word, you may be sure it is the power of Jabin, king of Hazor.
Then the captain of the host is a great warrior. Poor man has high thoughts of his attainments and his knowledge. When you touch a man's knowledge you touch his pride. From this comes contention, each one asserting the truth of his own position. The apostle James answers his question, "From whence come wars and fightings among you?" by replying, "Come they not hence even of your lusts that war in your members?" There are lusts of the mind as well as grosser desires, and these beget a desire for war. The captain of Jabin's host, who is a warrior, is Sisera, which fittingly means a "battle array."
In the list of the "works of the flesh," the apostle has a significant arrangement (Gal. 5: 19-21). After detailing the grosser forms of moral corruption, and the superstitions of idolatry, he adds, "hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies." How suggestive are these of that "battle-array," in which the enemy would set the people of God.
You will notice, too, how it is Jabin, the wisdom of the world, that has Sisera as his leader. Turning to the first chapters of the epistle to the Corinthians, we find this "battle array" set before us in direct connection with the wisdom of the world. Before he touches the grosser lusts of the flesh, in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters, the apostle goes into minute detail as to the worldly wisdom which characterizes the Corinthian saints as carnal and walking as men.
They were divided — each sect or party with its head, and each arrayed against the other in the emulation and strife that resembled the conflicts of Greek philosophy with its antagonized schools. "I am of Paul, and I of Apollos."
It was human reasoning, the wisdom of the world, reasserting itself in the bosom of the assembly at Corinth. We need not wonder at the "strife of tongues" resulting, nor need we be surprised at the rise of this same spirit among God's people whenever they turn their backs upon the word of God and adopt the wisdom of man in its place.
You will notice, too, that Jabin is king, not only of Hazor, "inclosure," — the mutually exclusive sects of man's parties — where he reigns, but of Canaan, the general name for a large part of the inhabitants of the land. Thus his rule is widespread, and is marked by that spirit of trading in holy things which we have already dwelt upon, somewhat. Divine things are made but the material for self-aggrandizement; the Canaanite merchantman is in the house of God.
Sisera dwelt in "Harosheth of the Gentiles," and, as we have been seeing, the carnal strifes of human reasoning are characteristic of "men," of Gentiles, rather than of the saints of God. How humiliating it is to see the people of God in bondage to the world or its spirit, to be walking as "other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them because of the hardness of their heart." (Eph. 4: 17, 18.) In this brief passage we seem to have suggested, from one point of view, the darkness of the North, the vanity of Jabin and the Gentiles, among whom Sisera had his home.
But have we not at the present time cause to fear this sway of Jabin? We have already looked at it as illustrated in the use of the intellect in sitting in judgment upon the word of God, as seen in the Higher Criticism. But may we not see it further in the various sects and parties of today, each with their special creed, and each contending in unseemly strife for the correctness of its own views? Surely the divisions of the day speak loudly of a failure to have a common standard. But where can such a standard be found? Certainly in no creed of human devising, but only in that perfect word of God which sets aside all pretensions of the wisdom of this world.
You will also notice that this domination of Jabin takes place after the death of Ehud, upon which the people had departed from God. It is when the true "confessor" ceases that heart-departure begins, and this opens the way for the resurrection of the mind of the natural man. May our God keep us ever true confessors of His truth, that this enemy from the dark North oppress us not.
Such, in some sense, is the lesson of the bondage, but now for the remedy. Who is the judge that is going to deliver? Who is going to rise against the high tide, the flood of infidelity that comes in and rises higher and higher, and would sweep all before it? It would carry off their feet those men who boast in their knowledge and ability. It would engulf men of mind in their own carnal reasonings, rob them forever of the truth of God. Ah! dear friends, how the suggestions of human reason, of human intellect come in, till many of those voices are mute which once spoke boldly for the truth, or worse yet, they are turning to parley with the enemy. How unspeakably sad it is to see those who were once valiant for the truth descending to the level of the world, and associating with themselves professed religious teachers who are but the emissaries of Jabin. For surely this is what a man is who teaches evolution in any of its forms. No matter how piously one may speak, if the judgments of "science falsely so called" are adopted, he has turned from God, and is helping to bring the people under the yoke of practical infidelity. Those who unite with work like that are also helping to bring captive to Jabin king of Hazor the Lord's people.
But who is the deliverer? Who is the one that sets God's people free? A woman — Deborah.
We cannot doubt that there must be instruction in this, that the deliverer is a woman, not a man. The man comes in later, but all originates with the woman. What a witness of the universal failure, that not a man apparently can be found to do the Lord's work. It shows how completely and universally the people had failed. But, on the other hand, it shows how blessedly God comes in, even using the humblest instrument. Wherever He can find faith, which in feebleness will trust Him, there He finds a chosen instrument for His work.
And here again the names are what tell us unmistakably the spiritual meaning. We have seen the exaltation of reason. What does Deborah mean? Deborah and Debir are practically the same word, and both signify "the word." What a suited instrument for the overthrow of mere human reason. If God's word is the instrument you may rest assured that human reason, in so far as it exalts itself against God, will be cast down. More than that, she was a prophetess. It is not merely God's word according to the letter, not merely the written word, but the living word. That is the word of God as applied by the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit of prophecy speaking under divine guidance. Then she is the wife of Lapidoth, that is the wife of "a flaming torch." This reminds us of that passage in the epistle to the Philippians, "in the midst of whom ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life." Lapidoth, lights in the world holding forth the word of life. That is what gives the victory over human understanding.
Another thought is that Deborah judged Israel under the palm-tree between Ramah and Bethel. Deborah, the word of God, judging them as a flame of fire. The word of God is like a fire to burn up the dross and to melt. She judged Israel, and as we were seeing the other night, whenever Israel is judged, the first step has been taken which will result in the enemy being overthrown. There you have the deliverance foreshadowed. It emphasizes the two things that I have spoken of, man's feebleness and the power of the word of God. What a combination to effect the will of God! In ourselves absolute weakness, nothing but objects of contempt, you might say, so far as strength of man is concerned. But it is in our weakness that we cleave to His word; and if that word is like a flaming torch you may rest assured that God will search out and overthrow the enemy by it.
This, then, is the instrument at first sight. Next we have the other deliverer, who is called up by the prophetess, and who engages in the actual conflict. It is Barak, the son of Abinoam. His name means "lightning." How quickly the fiery torch becomes a lightning flash, symbolizing the word of God, brought home to our souls by the Spirit of God, so that it becomes not only a flaming torch, but to all spiritual enemies a thunderbolt falling from heaven. That is what will conquer the enemy, no matter how great he may be; no matter how learned and self-sufficient. How often has the might of learning in the infidel, the great man of letters, with his Greek and his Hebrew, and with his archaeology and his monuments, and everything of that kind — how often has this great man had to bow before some feeble Deborah and Barak, who simply brought the word of God — "Thus saith the Lord."
When will we learn to use that "Thus saith the Lord"? When will that be enough for us? How that settles everything. How it gives us all the theology we need to understand, all the astronomy, all the archaeology, all the inscriptions we need to unfold the mind of God! "Thus saith the Lord" is worth more than all the lying inscriptions of the heathen world, who loved to exalt their great men, and which are often set up to antagonize the word of God by the poor wretched enmity of infidels. Infidelity is always enmity against God, and the only way of victory over that infidelity is by the word of God. I do not mean merely open blatant avowed infidelity. I do not mean necessarily that which we link with the name, when we say, so and so is an infidel. I mean that more subtle and more dangerous form of infidelity, which creeps into the Church of Christ and leads people captive.
We must take heed or we will be snared by its subtlety. No man who comes amongst us saying, "I do not believe in Jesus Christ," could have any power over us. No one who comes to us and says that the Bible is a book of fables and lies has any power over us. But if he comes and says you must use your reason, you must use the principles of philosophy in order to understand the "Logos" (and when a man begins to talk Greek to untutored souls, beware) — if he says you have got to know philosophy to understand the Scripture teaching as to the Logos; or you have to know all kinds of archaeology and history before you can understand the Bible, rest assured, dear friends, he is an infidel. It is the exaltation of the mind of man over the word of God, and setting reason as judge over that which judges us. It is a puny attempt to throw man's light upon this precious Word, which in the power of the Spirit is itself a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It is the only light needed, and the only one there can possibly be. All else is but darkness.
And is that not the lesson that we get from Jabin's rule?
It is feeble Deborah who sends and calls for Barak. If the word is to be effective, it must find an instrument, and it is not Deborah but Barak who is to go to war. He comes from Kedesh — one of the cities of refuge, and whose name is beautifully suggestive of where true shelter is to be found. It is "the sanctuary of the wrestler" — Kedesh-Naphtali — and no wrestler can come forth to victory unless his home be in the sanctuary.
How strikingly in contrast is this with the abode of the warlike Sisera — Harosheth of the Gentiles, "Artifice of the Gentiles." This may not exclude the thought of cutting out or making the artificers' work, but the word also seems to have the suggestion of deceit, which is so common in the construction of human systems of thought" the sleight of men and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive" (Eph. 4: 14). If one be outside the sanctuary, he is exposed to all this artifice.
Deborah, true to her name, meets Barak with the Word: "Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded?" How reassuring is this! How it links with the strength of Omnipotence. What are "ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali, and of the children of Zebulon," compared with the mighty hosts and chariots of Sisera? Ah, if the Lord God of Israel hath commanded, the battle is already won.
In this light, Barak's unbelief comes out clearly. If the command of God has been given, it is a pledge of His presence. What need then of the feeble instrument through whom that command had been given? He had said, "I will draw unto thee . . . Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thy hand."
Evidently Barak did not fully realize this, for he says to Deborah, "If thou wilt go with me, then I will go but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go." And this in the face of a plain command! Ah, brethren, if if we are disposed to blame Barak too severely, let us include ourselves. How often have we held back for some feeble instrument of nature, some arm of flesh, when the living God has given us His command.
Therefore, the full victory shall not be his, but Sisera shall fall by the hands of Jael, a feeble woman. How our blessed God would check, with a holy jealousy, all usurpation of His place even by the instrument he may please to use.
Not many details of this great conflict are given. Barak, accompanied by Deborah, leads his little army of men from Zebulun and Naphtali — the territory in which Jabin chiefly held sway — to Mount Tabor. Zebulun suggests the abiding communion, and Naphtali the spirit of true conflict. They are, therefore, fittingly united. The mountain suggests that elevation of soul which comes from communion, and which enables one to take a wide and calm survey of the entire conflict. The name Tabor is by many thought to mean merely a "heap," or "elevation;" by others, a "broken, ridged" mountain, descriptive merely of its form. The meaning "purpose" would fittingly describe its spiritual significance, and this has been given. The "mount of purpose" is a fitting place from which to enter upon such a conflict as this, for God cannot use one who vacillates.
Sisera, in his pride, hears of this gathering, and collects his mighty host to crush the feeble effort. The scene of the conflict is at the river Kishon, where, at a later day, Elijah slew the false prophets (1 Kings 18: 40). Its name comes from a root meaning to bend, and has usually been given as "winding." Closely connected with this are other words also derived from the same root "a bow" and "to lay a snare." Thus the weapon of war is suggested, and the ambuscade into which the man of artifice himself falls. Kishon seems to be the place of his own choice for the battle. Into the pit which he had digged for others, he falls himself. Yet all had been foreseen and provided by God.
Ah, brethren, when the feeble are with God, what a mighty victory is gained over the power of reason and the strife of tongues! Man's haughty pride is humbled, Sisera the leader flees away on foot. Barak and his men pursue after the fleeing hosts and completely destroy all, not leaving one. Where is all the proud strength, the boasted resources of the mind of man? But Deborah's song will celebrate the victory; we will follow Sisera.
His army overthrown, the defeated and disgraced leader alights from his chariot, and, in the hope of eluding his pursuers, flees away on foot. He apparently has gained his purpose, for Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, gives him a shelter in her tent. We have already seen who these Kenites were, who came up from Jericho and made their home in the tribe of Judah. They represented there, as we have said, some principle of the world which has been spared, and which is allowed to find a harbor among God's people.
But Heber, though his name means "companion," separates from his kinsmen and finds a refuge in Naphtali, close to Kedesh, "the sanctuary." He will thus suggest the opposite of that which we saw in his relatives. Being a stranger, he might have peace with Jabin without laying himself open to the charge of failure, as it was for Israel. But there is no guilty complicity with the leader of Jabin's host.
It is not Heber, however, but his wife Jael who is used of God. She has faith which identifies her with the people of God, and makes their enemies her own. Like Rahab, she sees where God's truth is, and acts accordingly, though like Rahab, too, it may be her faith is so feeble as to express itself in deception. But before so deciding, we must look a little more closely. Let us just notice here the oft-repeated lesson — which meets us all through the book — that the way of power is through weakness, and that God will only use the instrument that is feeble enough to resign itself into His hands.
This is what we find in Jael. She is a woman, and with her tent pin slays Sisera. The tent suggests to us a pilgrim character, and after all, dear friends, a tent is a good house to live in while the Lord is not yet present. A tent is a pilgrim habitation, and is the only place for a pilgrim to live in really. If you live in a tent, you will have that other feature accompanying it — the altar. The tent is suggestive of being outside the existing order of things here. Man desires everything to speak of solidity and permanence — the very opposite to living in a tent. The altar is the other side we are strangers in the world but near to God, so we offer our pilgrim worship.
The name Jael is significant. It means "climbing," and so "the (climbing) goat." The goat itself suggests sin, just as the female of the goat was always used for the sin offering. So here you have that which in itself speaks of the sin offering, reminding us of unworthiness and nothingness, but all met by Christ's death. The climber, too, reminds us of ascent, of one not content to remain in the low level of earth, but who desires to rise above the things here.
Thus we may say Jael has learned to climb, she has learned her way upward, she has learned, if I may so say, that if she is risen with Christ she is to seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. She is a climber, and a climber lives in a tent. Those who are seeking the things which are above realize that here they have no continuing city, they are strangers and pilgrims.
But, you say, what kind of spiritual lesson can you get out of this act of treachery, inviting a weary man into the tent and then wreaking vengeance upon him? We are surely to remember that our God is a God of truth, nor does He desire us to use artifice and deceit to win victories for Him. I have already referred to the feeble faith of Rahab, which, while it identified her with the Lord's people, and impelled her to use the token of the scarlet cord, yet did not lift her above the outward fear of man.
Be that as it may, we see here a clear spiritual lesson. There is such a thing as maintaining peace outwardly for the purpose of gaining a victory. In one sense God's pilgrims are so insignificant that the great of earth do not deem them worthy of assailing, and thus may be at outward peace with them. But here is a woman who sees the bitter intellectual enemy of God's people in her grasp. It was not a question of what was due to hospitality, but how her weakness could get him into her power, so that she herself might make away with him.
When you transfer that to the spiritual realm, and when you see that in Sisera this battle array is of human intellect against the revelation of God — when human reason confronts you, what are you to do? Give it a place? Give place to all sensible reason. Here a man comes to you with all his arguments; you do not agree with his arguments, but you listen to him, and this enables you to take him in his own craftiness. Ah, I will be glad to entertain an infidel, if I can put an end to his infidelity. If I can get the nail of pilgrim truth through his head, I am willing, dear friends, to listen to his presentation of infidelity. If I can, after I have heard all that he has to say, give him a divine testimony, the witness of a pilgrim walk, that will always be enough to overthrow him.
And remember we are not soldiers, we are pilgrims. We are not killing men, we are putting to death spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty, through God. I have learned much from the Scriptures of the lesson of retreat, of the ambuscade, of the flank attack, of the night attack, of everything that emphasizes a weaker power that contends with a mighty; and yet contending in such a way that the mightier power may be overthrown. You all know that, and while, perhaps, it may be a little difficult to understand the details, if you dwell upon it there is no difficulty in learning the spiritual lesson. We may be kind and friendly to those who are in error, and yet be loyal and firm in the maintenance of the truth.
Sisera is asleep, and then Jael takes the witness of her pilgrim life — she is a pilgrim and a stranger — and slays him. The only weapon she has is feeble enough, but it says, "here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come." It was the tent-pin that slew the mighty. Ah! Lot could not use a tent-pin with the men of Sodom. He had no tent to live in; I question whether a tent-pin could be found in all Sodom. Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom, and it is the last we hear of any pilgrim character to his life. It is the mountain climber, it is the one who is separate from the world, who is a stranger and a pilgrim indeed, who has a tent-pin. You can drive a tent-pin through the head of any infidel that arrays himself against the word of God. Dear brethren, here is the secret. Take that strangership of yours, take hold of it with your hands — the practical life; lay hold upon the hammer of God's word — it is a hammer in your right hand — and now apply it to that argumentation of yours that would tamper with God's truth. With it pierce that wretched reasoning of yours that would make you satisfied to go on with spiritual bondage. Take hold of pin and hammer, put to death the principles which are eating the very life out of your soul. Oh! how many Jaels there should be who thus get delivered themselves, then deliver the people of God. For it is this strangership, — it is this being of another world, — it is the realizing that our treasures and hopes are elsewhere, that enables us to overthrow the mightiest power that the enemy can bring against us.
We come now to Deborah's song of triumph. Barak is associated with her, but the words are evidently those of the prophetess. It is one of the few songs we find in the Old Testament histories, and the only one in this book of Judges. Without doubt, therefore, we may expect to find unfolded here God's thoughts as to the victory.
As I have said, we find but few such songs in the Scriptures. In fact, the one most like it is that of the Children of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea. Both describe victory, the first, that of the Lord alone, and this His also, but through human instruments. There is also some resemblance to the last song of Moses, just before his death, in that the failures of the people are spoken of. But we must look a little at the contents of this song.
First of all we have the general theme: Praise to God for deliverance through leaders who, with a willing people, offered themselves for the work. But immediately the thought is turned to Him who is the source of all victory, Jehovah Himself. He is presented to us in His majesty as He passed forth from Edom, leading, as we might say, His people, after their desert journey, on to victory. That majesty is connected too with Mount Sinai, where He gave the law arid entered into covenant relation with them. At once the soul is lifted into the atmosphere of majesty. How petty are carnal things, how puny the mightiest adversary, in the presence of a majesty that is divine. We are reminded of the opening of the sixty-eighth psalm:
"Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered: let them also that hate Him flee before Him."
Or of the sublime strains in the third chapter of Habakkuk:
"God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of His praise . . . He stood, and measured the earth; He beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow . . . Thou didst march through the land in indignation, thou didst thresh the heathen in anger."
How glorious is this mighty God! But how wondrous, too, dear brethren, it is to remember that the lips of a feeble woman were uttering this glory. The heavens above speak silently of His greatness, but it is out of the mouths of babes and sucklings that He has ordained strength and perfected praise. "The Lord gave the word" — it is all from Him — "great was the company of the women who published it" (Ps. 68: 11). It is feebleness that can celebrate the strength of God, and it is only for feebleness that His strength is enlisted.
We come next to see the low condition of the people and the causes of their wretched state, before God intervened in their behalf. In the days of Shamgar and Jael — the dwellers in the two parts of the Land, the North and the South; the deliverers, too, from the enemy, each in their way — the highways could not be used, but the people, for fear of the dreaded enemy, had to move about over lonely by-paths.
What a picture of the results of spiritual bondage. The psalmist could say, "He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake." And surely in God's path there never should be fear of the enemy. But here are deserted highways. Instead of busy intercourse between city and city, companies of men bearing the produce of the land to the various places of exchange, and returning with gold or merchandise; instead of the families of Israel going in with singing to the place where the Lord had put His name — all is solitude, and a lonely traveler, driven by need to move from his place, hides from the view of his enemies by pursuing his way over lonely paths. May we not well believe that these ways, "crooked," as they are called in the margin, suggest that vacillation and uncertainty that mark a feeble faith? To what straits oftentimes, and to what devious ways are the saints of God reduced when Jabin rules. Contrast with this the highway of the Lord for Israel in the day of blessing:
"And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called, The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.
"No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there:
"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isa. 35: 8-10).
Similarly, too, we find that "the villages ceased." Man is a social being, and it is a law of nature, as well as of grace, that he should not be alone. The cities are suggestive often of an artificial exaggeration of this desire for companionship, but the villages with their busy hum of activity, yet not severed from the surrounding fields, would speak in the happiest way of the absence of constraint, and the normal development of life.
But when the enemy threatens, or the oppressor rules, the villages must cease. The people must be concentrated in the large walled cities either for better protection, or for preventing them from escaping from bondage. Ah, brethren, where are the villages, the unwalled towns with homes dotted among the trees and fields adjacent? They tell of rest and security which cannot be when the oppressor threatens.
And is not this a sad necessity, whenever the people of God are in bondage? It would be folly to dwell in villages when a hostile force might sweep down at any moment and take all captive. The walls and bars of a city are needed, and thither must all resort who would be safe.
We hear complaint, for instance, that fellowship is too limited and rigid; that the simple, unrestrained and informal life suggested by the village has given place to martial rigor and the challenge of friend and foe. But is there not a need? If rationalism and infidelity have sway, can we allow such to enter unchallenged the company of God's people? If any be parleying with the enemy, can they have a place among the saints?
Here we have a most important principle, a witness to our shame no doubt, but a safeguard in a day of ruin. Let us, by God's grace, maintain this principle and act according to it. Let us dwell in the walled towns and keep close watch at the gates, for our enemies, and God's, are seeking to gain a foothold wherever they can. I am not speaking merely of persons, but of principles. We cannot separate the two; a person who holds unscriptural principles, must be regarded in the light of his principles and not of his personal character. Lose sight of this, and we open the gate to all manner of evil. Church history and the present state of things in Christendom, witness alike to this. Let us then, dear brethren, instead of ignoring the need and throwing open the gates for widest fellowship, keep careful guard and acknowledge with sorrow that there is need for care in receiving those who profess to be, and who may be, the children of God. Thus while the villages are not fully restored, there may be a great measure of recovery, and comfort and growth witness the wisdom of God's provision.
But let us ask the reason for this state of things in Deborah's day, and in our own day: "They chose new gods; then was war in the gates." Ah, it is the old story of heart-departure from God, and of idolatry, which we have already looked at. Let us remember that war follows departure from our God, partial or complete, subtle or gross; whatever usurps His place exposes us to the inroads of our bitter foes.
And what is the state, the preparedness of the people for such an inroad? "Was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?" No weapons of war, no furnishing from the armory of divine truth. Brethren, how is it today? Where are the well-armed soldiers of Christ? The word of God is our arsenal, and from that source alone can we obtain "the weapons of our warfare." Alas, how few have on "the whole armor of God."
But now we pass to a brighter side. We have had the voluntary choice of new gods, and now we see the leaders willingly offering themselves. We shall presently see the people doing the same.
What an awful responsibility have those who occupy a place of prominence and influence among the saints of God! How unutterably solemn it is to think of the influence, for good or bad, of men of gift who can largely control the acts of their brethren. It is a place no man would covet, for peace and ease. It means work, prayer, responsibility, firmness, love; or else the dreadful alternative of leading the people of God astray.
God's heart, as was Deborah's, is toward those leaders who willingly offer themselves for the service of the saints. And such who are faithful will have the joy, in days of peace again, of celebrating the Lord's victories, and of seeing the people again in the villages, with none to make them afraid. Alas, we cannot expect to see this for all the Church till the Lord come, but in some little measure we shall see it wherever there is even a partial victory.
But the song passes on, from the twelfth verse, to the people and the conflict which resulted in such a glorious victory. Surely it is God's victory alone, and yet how accurately He marks the faithfulness of all whom He associates with Himself; and with what holy jealousy does He point out the laggard and the indifferent.
Here we have Ephraim and Benjamin mentioned first, and Machir, of the tribe of Manasseh, from Gilead, beyond Jordan. Zebulun and Issachar are particularly mentioned as being associated with Barak, and as those who bore the brunt of the fight. Again, Zebulun is mentioned with Naphtali (ver. 18), as a people who jeoparded their lives. Nor was this from selfish motives, for "they took no gain of money."
Ah, where is such courage today? Where are those who are willing to "lay down their lives for the brethren," to whom there is but one motive — the glory of Christ in the deliverance of His people? Such men are associated with heaven, and in the bold imagery of the song, "the stars in their courses," fight with them; while upon earth, the river bears off the slain.
But, alas, there is the other side, and the spirit of God singles out by name the tribes who held back. First of these is Reuben, the first-born and natural leader, but whose instability had deprived him of a leadership which fell to Ephraim. His character abides with him still, as, alas, many of us know, and the same vacillation and selfishness mark him still.
You remember that Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, chose as their portion the land east of Jordan, on the wilderness or earth side. Their reason for so doing was, "thy servants have cattle." Here we have the bleating of the sheep still holding them down. There may be divided motives, a stirring of heart to join the noble company of faithful ones. There may be great resolves of heart and great searchings of heart, but there is no true decision; they remain with the sheepfolds, as Dan abides in his ships, and Asher with his commerce by the sea.
Beloved brethren, how many are there today who are utterly indifferent to the inroads of the mighty power of evil. How the bleating of the sheep drowns the sound of the groans of the captives. There may be momentary awakenings as "the sighing of the prisoner" reaches their ears, and makes them feel that they ought to be doing something. But, ah, their sheep are more important than God's sheep; their interests than His, and so whatever turnings on their bed of ease, like the sluggard, they may have, they never truly awake to the decision of faith that will lead them to put aside self and its concerns, and to take God's interests and make them first.
You and I never will be worth anything unless we make God's interests first. I do not care who you are; I do not care how little you have to do. You may not be a preacher, you may not be a public worker in God's service; but, my brother, if you make your business more important than God's, if you make your household concerns, family concerns, business concerns — the things of daily life — if you make these things more important than the concerns of God's people, you have no wish to engage in conflict for Him.
The Lord Jesus said, "seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." What had He been speaking of just before? Of "what ye shall eat, and put on" — that is the necessary things for our earthly life. Those are necessary things, but, dear brethren, in view of those very necessities, our Lord deliberately says, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." Are we hearkening to this word? What is first in our souls?
But we have a more solemn word for Meroz; a solemn judgment is pronounced upon it, "Curse ye bitterly, Meroz, because they came not up to the help of the Lord against the mighty." Why is Meroz singled out this way? I have no question that it was for two reasons; first, because in their location they were specially placed where their help would be effectual. They were those whose example would turn their brethren to the right side, or whose aid would be particularly helpful at a critical point and time. But then, as ever, failure suggests something else as the cause. Meroz means, "built of cedars," or, as we might say, dwellers in cedar palaces. You might say it represents the luxury of spiritual self-pleasing as contrasted with the lowliness of serving the Lord.
Put side by side the mighty cedar temple palaces of Meroz, and the lowly tent of Jael. A cedar palace and a curtain! Oh! how many of God's people have brought a curse upon themselves for having a cedar palace which stole their heart away from Christ. On the other hand, the tent of a pilgrim and its pin — those are things which can be used in victory. And so in immediate connection with this you have Jael and her place in the song of triumph. Beloved, it is not that we want a place, it is not that we are seeking honor and attention, but it is a blessed truth that those who are Jaels, who take their place on God's side and His work — their name shall not be left out of that song of triumph at the day of the Lord's celebration, in glory.
But I want you to notice, before we leave this part, the remarkable expression used in describing the conduct of the inhabitants of Meroz. "They came not up to the help of the Lord against the mighty." Think of it, brethren, what we are called to do is not to help one another, but the Lord. Of course He does not need our help for Himself; He can, and one day will, overthrow all His and our enemies with the sword that proceedeth out of His mouth. But as our Lord identifies Himself with His poor brethren who are afflicted or imprisoned, and regards help afforded to them as though done to Himself personally, so it is here. It is to the help of the Lord, against the mighty.
You will notice with what appreciation Jael's conduct is spoken of; how the details, of which we have already spoken, are dwelt upon. She is "blessed above women," for has she not slain the proud and mighty foe who held God's people in bondage!
Last we have a piece of solemn irony in the description of the mother of Sisera. It reminds us of that awful word, "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh, the Lord will have them in derision." The derision of Jehovah! awful thought!
She has her wise ladies about her, this mother of Sisera, the leader of intellectual denial of God's truth — and they can give wise reasons for the delay of the chariot-wheels of the supposed conqueror. So, too, in a day fast hastening, will the wise of earth be ready with abundant reasons for the tarrying of the victorious march of man's mind. Ah, for man, in the pride of his rebellion, there is no triumph, no spoils, no broidered garment to adorn the flesh. When they shall say "peace and safety," then shall sudden destruction fall, and they shall not escape.
Then shall the lowly pilgrim bride receive her adornment, and be arrayed as befits one who is to be forever with Christ. And eternal rest shall be for the inheritance of the Lord.
"So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord: but let them that love Him be as the sun when he goeth forth in His might."