Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying,Jdg 5:1
Of the three main branches of poetry, the only feminine one is the lyrical, not the objective lyrical poetry, like that of Pindar and Simonides, and the choric odes of the Greek tragedians, but that which is the expression of individual, personal feeling, like Sappho's. Of this class we have noble examples in the songs of Miriam, of Deborah, of Hannah, and of the Blessed Virgin.
—Hare, Guesses at Truth (2nd Series).
Reference.—V. 1.—H. Henley Henson, The Value of the Bible, p. 53.
What does the character of a citizen involve? That he will deliberate about nothing as if he were detached from the community.
Reference.—V. 2.—J. M. Neale, Sermons for the Church Year, vol. ii. p. 229.
In 1637 Samuel Rutherford wrote to Lord Boyd, one of the Scotch nobles: 'If ye, the nobles, refuse to plead the controversy of Zion with the professed enemies of Jesus, ye have done with it. Oh! where is the courage and zeal now of the ancient nobles of this land, who with their swords, and hazard of life, honour, and houses, brought Christ to our hands?'
We want public souls, we want them. I speak it with compassion. When every one is his own end, all things will come to a bad end. Blessed were those days, when every man thought himself rich and fortunate by the good success of the public wealth and glory.
Compare Sydney Smith's eulogium upon Grattan:—
'He was so born, so gifted, that poetry, forensic skill, elegant literature, and all the highest attainments of human genius were within his reach; but he thought the noblest occupation of a man was to make other men happy and free; and in that straight line he kept for fifty years, without one side-look, one yielding thought, one motive in his heart which he might not have laid open to the view of God or man.'
References.—V. 9-11.—J. Bowstead, Practical Sermons, vol. ii. p. 296. V. 11.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii. No. 763.
Not a few difficulties we have created for ourselves by that mischievous and often fatal habit of importing into the text of Scripture more than it actually and necessarily, or even by implication contains. From the simple fact that Deborah is called a 'prophetess' some tremendous but unwarrantable inferences have been drawn. It has been assumed that all her words were God's words, and that all her acts had a Divine sanction prompting and justifying them. And that even the fierce and ruthless spirit of her song was one that God inspired. I would only offer for your consideration two remarks in connexion with these difficulties.
I. It is adopting a perilous principle to argue that an action must be right because, as we suppose, God commanded it. It is a safer rule of interpretation to infer that if an action, of which we know the details, or so far as we know them, is manifestly wrong—opposed to the instinctive sense of right, or goodness, or truth, or holiness, which, if the world were rocking beneath our feet, we still should feel to be inimitable—it could not have been an act commanded by Him Whose essential characteristics are equity, goodness, holiness, truth.
II. Deborah's prophetic gift was, so far as we have materials for estimating it, rather an afflatus of poetic inspiration than anything deeper or more Divine. Nor even if we were sure that Deborah was gifted with predictive powers, would that necessitate, or even justify the conclusion that all her utterances, when not claiming to be spoken under special guidance of the Holy Spirit, were utterances of infallible truth or of inimitable morality. And so her words have no claim to supersede that standard of right and wrong which we believe to be implanted in our conscience by God; and by which even words professing to be Divine must, in the case of each individual responsible man, be ultimately tested and weighed.
III. The prophetess, even in her moment of highest exultation, cannot forget those who, in their country's critical hour, when freedom, honour, independence—everything that constitutes the real life and force of a nation—was in jeopardy, and one bold, united effort might achieve deliverance, stood apart in the isolation of rivalry, or selfishness, or in the inglorious love of ease, and 'came not to the help of the Lord against the mighty'. May I venture to apply the lesson to our own circumstances. No one can be blind to the fact that Christianity is confronted all over the civilized world by a gigantic foe. I know not by what better name to call it than 'the spirit of unbelief. A moral unbelief in the existence of truth rather than an intellectual unbelief, staggered and perplexed by speculative difficulties. Religion is not, as it has been called, the produce of credulity and poetry. It is the product of the profoundest and truest instincts—at least if their universality is any test of their truth—of our nature. All that constitutes the true nobility of human nature is proportionate to the influence of this sense in man. Are we doomed never to realize this temper under which alone higher results are possible? Shall we, broken up into miserable sets and parties, stand selfishly and suspiciously by, while Zebulun and Naphtali—the more generous spirits of the age—are jeoparding their lives unto the death in the high places of the field? Oh! how one longs to gather into one camp, or to mass together in supporting columns on the great battlefield, all those who, however differing on points of lesser detail, are yet united in this—the great uniting influence—that they love the Lord Jesus Christ in all sincerity!
—J. Fraser, University and Other Sermons, p. 137.
References.—V. 12.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vi. No. 340. V. 12-23.—J. Bunting, Sermons, vol. i. p. 167.
'In the greatest war-song of any age or nation,' says Mr. R. H. Hutton, 'the exultation of Deborah over Sisera's complete defeat, and subsequent assassination by the hand of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite—no doubt, personal revenge might seem to blaze high above Deborah's faith in her nation and her God, as the kindling or exciting spiritual principle which brings the scene in such marvellous vividness before her eyes. But though this feeling may add perhaps some of the fire to the latter part of the poem, it is clear that her faith in the national unity, and God as the source of the national unity, was the great binding thought of the whole. The song dwells, first, with the most intense bitterness on the decay of patriotism in the tribes that did not combine against the common foe.... And the transition by which she passes to her fierce exultation over Sisera's terrible fate shows distinctly what was the main thought in her mind.'
The Apologia of the Coward
Israel was in bondage, Jabin, King of the Canaanites, ruled the captive nation with a rod of iron. In Israel's land there was a gifted woman, who nursed the fires of her own patriotism and that of her countrymen, and waited but for the opportunity to strike the blow for liberty. Deborah—prophetess and poetess—never doubted the time would come when Israel's God would remember His former lovingkindness and restore His people freedom, forfeited by their sin. And the men of Israel rose at the call, and under the lead of Barak they made a grand and successful attempt to regain their liberty. But amongst those who did not come to the help of the warrior-prophetess was the tribe of Reuben. They had great heart-searchings but it only led to a policy of masterly inactivity.
I. Thousands of men miss the best life has to offer because they can never rise to a great occasion. They never train themselves to make a great decision. They are debating when they ought to be fighting. They are searching their own hearts when they should be smiting the enemy. Life's prizes are for the brave. God gives no guerdon to the coward. The names enshrined in the muster-roll of His Ironsides, in the chapter of the roll-call—the 11th of Hebrews—are all men who dared to do. By faith they stopped the mouths of lions. And the man who would ever do anything must make his reckoning with the lions.
II. Like father, like son, never received a more powerful illustration than in the case of the Reubenites. The head of their tribe was a moral weakling, Reuben was a human jelly-fish. The Reubenites are one of the lost tribes, as a tribe, but you will find them dispersed in every place under the sun. He is a very nice man, the modern Reuben, but woe to you if you trust him in a moral crisis. He will offer you sugar plums when it is shot you need. He has no opinions he cannot change and no principles he is not prepared to forswear, if they stand in the way of his getting on.
III. If Deborah and Barak had waited until the heart-searchings of the Reubenites found expression in military action, Israel would never have been delivered. All great movements have been the work of one strong will. There are times when one Deborah, with the light of a great purpose in her eyes, is worth all the men of the tribe of Reuben put together. The practical lesson in the study of this tribe of moral invertebrates is first of all that every man should train his will to act quickly and decisively in great questions. There are those, for example, who all their life keep Christ at the bar of their judgment, and are perpetually asking: 'Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?' They are not Christians. They are not anti-Christians. They are amongst those who are always seeking but never find the truth.
IV. Is not the text an- illustration of the fact that to nations and Church there come times of great moral testings, when they need to throw aside the counsels of a timid opportunism, and dare to do right and follow the flag of duty at whatever cost.
Reference.—V. 16.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Judges, p. 206.
All human life, we may say, consists solely of these two activities: (1) Bringing one's activities into harmony with conscience, or (2) hiding from oneself the indications of conscience, in order to be able to continue to live as before.—Tolstoy.
Commenting on Cromwell's letter from Ely, in which his ardent, heroic spirit breathes, Carlyle asks: 'Brother, hadst thou never, in any form, such moments in thy history? Thou knowest them not, even by credible rumour? Well, thy earthly path was peaceabler, I suppose. But the Highest was never in thee, the Highest will never come out of thee. Thou shalt at best abide by the stuff; as cherished housedog, guard the stuff—perhaps with enormous gold-collars and provender; but the battle, and the hero-death, and victory's fire-chariot carrying men to the Immortals, shall never be thine. I pity thee: brag not, or I shall have to despise thee.
I like battle-fields; for, terrible as war is, it nevertheless displays the spiritual grandeur of man who dares to defy his most powerful hereditary foe—Death.
References.—V. 18.—J. M. Neale, Sermons for Some Feast Days in the Christian Year, p. 113. E. J. Hardy, Faint yet Pursuing, p. 85. V. 20.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of the Holy Scripture—Judges, p. 209.
When truth is in danger, the conduct of many is to wash their hands in Pilate's basin of weak neutrality, but they only soil the water and do not cleanse their hands. Of how much nobler a spirit is the favourite text of the old Covenanters; 'Curse ye Meroz, saith the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty!'
—Dr. John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life.
It was the companionship of that other virtue of valour in a good cause which made so bright the moderation of Aristides and of Athens, the spirit in which the city of Pallas had arisen to face the invader alone, when in the other states of Hellas 'there were great searchings of heart,' when some of the mightiest quailed, and shrank more from danger than from the coward's curse—the curse pronounced by the Hebrew Deborah against the men of Meroz, 'because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty'.
—Ernest Myers in Hellenica, p. 24.
Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord; curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof—sang Deborah. Was it that she called to mind any personal wrongs—rapine or insult—that she or the house of Lapidoth had received from Jabin or Sisera? No; she had dwelt under her palm-tree in the depth of the mountain. But she was a mother in Israel; and with a mother's heart, and with the vehemency of a mother's and a patriot's love, she had shut the light of love from her eyes, and poured the blessings of love from her lips, on the people that had jeoparded their lives unto the death against the oppressors; and the bitterness, awakened and borne aloft by the same love, she precipitated in curses on the selfish and coward recreants who came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty. As long as I have the image of Deborah before my eyes, and while I throw myself back into the age, country, circumstances of their Hebrew Boadicea, in the not yet tamed chaos of the spiritual creation;—as long as I contemplate the impassioned, high-souled, heroic woman in all the prominence and individuality of will and character—I feel as if I were among the first ferments of the great affections—the proplastic waves of the microcosmic chaos, swelling up against—and yet towards—the outspread wings of the Dove that lies brooding on the troubled waters.
—Coleridge, Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit.
Fellow-labourers with God
I. Fellow-labourers with God.—The Almighty God needs the help of His creatures, of us and of our fellows. God has been pleased to use His own human children to help Him in the work which He desires to be done. We see in the Old Testament and in the New that God absolutely limits His own power by the will of His creatures. It is recorded that when God would overthrow the cities of the plain, the angel said to Lot: 'Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do anything till thou be come thither'. And of our Lord Himself it is said, speaking of His own country, that He 'could there do no mighty works, because of their unbelief. Man can refuse if he will to come 'to the help of the Lord'. And more than that, he can even take an antagonistic line to God. Gamaliel warned his hearers to 'refrain from these men, lest haply ye be found even to fight against God'. St. Paul, writing to the Philippians, spoke of 'the enemies of the Cross of Christ'.
II. What is our Position?—What is to be our position in this matter? Are there not many who say, 'It is the last thing in the world I should desire to be, an enemy of the Cross of Christ, I should abhor above all things to be fighting against God; but I am not quite prepared to take vigorous action on His behalf. Cannot I remain neutral?' In the old laws of the lawgiver, neutrals were ordered to be put to death, and though the penalty is not so severe under the Christian dispensation, yet we cannot but remember those words of our Blessed Master: 'He that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me, scattereth'. Have we no cause to band ourselves together to come 'to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty'?
III. How We can come to the Help of the Lord.—If you ask, How can I come to God's help? What can I do? then surely in the very forefront of our marching orders is 'Pray'. (1) Prayer is in the power of every one of us, and how potent that is we know, not alone from the history of the Church, but from the Scriptures themselves. It was said by St. Augustine in his sermon on St. Stephen's Day: 'If Stephen had not thus prayed the Church had not had Paul'. It was the prayer of Stephen for his murderers that gave to the Church the great Apostle of the Gentiles. And when we think of St. Augustine, we are reminded how his holy mother, Monica, prayed long and earnestly for him, prayed for him while there seemed to be no hope of his conversion, while he was living in heathen philosophy and licentiousness; and the prayers of that saintly woman won for the Church the great Augustine. And that same power of prayer is within the possibility of the meanest; the commonest, the poorest, the least educated may yet pray, and pray with a power which shall rule the world. Let us take care that day by day, morning by morning, evening by evening, we lift up our heart to God, praying not only for ourselves, but for all those in need and necessity. (2) It is not only our prayers, and our time and talents, but our substance the Lord will accept from us. All of us are able to do something. Those who are given much can give plenteously; those who have little can still do their diligence gladly to give of that little. And if we are thus taking our part in God's work, thus doing that which we can to help Him in this mighty work in which He makes us fellow-labourers with Himself, then that word will be spoken to us that Abigail spoke to David: 'The Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house: because my lord fighteth the battles of the Lord' (1 Samuel 25:28).
Christ and the National Life
Deborah identifies the cause of Israel with the cause of Israel's God. Identification of patriotism and religion belongs to an early phase of religious development, and is unquestionably associated with the crudest notions of the Diety.
I. These fierce words enshrine a conception of human affairs which is profoundly true, and apparently Christian. That human affairs are the scene of a true conflict between the will of God and of pugnant forces, that every individual must have his place therein for or against the will of God, that no individual is so without illumination on the supreme issue as not to be able, if he will, to ally himself with the Divine cause—these are the very assumptions of morality, and they are taken for granted in the Gospel.
II. Can we simply accept the national interest in the conventional and obvious sense of the phrase as competent to interpret for us our religious duty? We shall all agree that Christianity cannot be satisfied by those suggestions. The religion of Christ is not, in the old sense of the phrase, a national religion. God still speaks to us as in the old prophetic age, most authoritatively and intelligibly within ourselves. This interior guidance, as it is ministered in the solitude of the individual spirit, so it is incompetent for the purposes of general direction.
III. What then ought to be the effect on our political conduct of our accepting the prophetic notion of human affairs as the arena of a conflict? Three consequences seem to follow directly from such a doctrine:—
(a) We shall inevitably take a larger view of public duty.
(b) We will have a high estimate of personal responsibility.
(c) There will be an intimate relation maintained between politics and religion.
—H. Hensley Henson, Christ and the Nation, p. 73.
References.—V. 23.—H. P. Liddon, University Sermons, (2nd Series), p. 264. W. Baird, The Hallowing of Our Common Life, p. 70. C. Hook, Contemporary Pulpit, vol. vi. p. 42. Phillips Brooks, The Candle of the Lord, p. 287. Bishop Wilmington Ingram, Mission of the Spirit, p. 83.
The types of female excellence exhibited in the early period of Jewish history are in general of a low order, and certainly far inferior to those of Roman history or Greek poetry; and the warmest eulogy of a woman in the Old Testament is probably that which was bestowed upon her who, with circumstances of the most aggravated treachery, had murdered the sleeping fugitive who had taken refuge under her roof.
—Lecky, History of European Morals, II. p. 337.
In one of Richard Cameron's most violent sermons, during the 'killing' days of the seventeenth century in Scotland, he employs this verse to justify the assassination of tyrants and oppressors:—
'I know not if this generation will be honoured to cast off these rulers, but those that the Lord makes instruments to bring back Christ, and to recover our liberties, civil and ecclesiastic, shall be such as shall disarm this king and set inferiors under him, and against whom our Lord is denouncing war. Let them take heed unto themselves, for though they should take us to scaffolds, or kill us in the fields, the Lord will yet raise up a party who will be avenged upon them. And are there none to execute justice and judgment upon these wicked men who are both treacherous and tyrannical? The Lord is calling men of all ranks and stations to execute judgment upon them. And if it be done we cannot but justify the deed, and such are to be commended for it as Jael was. "Blessed above women shall Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, be."' Even in the Reformation age, the killing of tyrants was held to be a worthy task. Thus Melanchthon, in one of his letters, wishes that some good man would kill the "English Nero," Henry VIII. A saying of similar import is quoted by Loesche in his Analecta Lutherana et Melanthoniana, p. 159.
References.—V. 24.—T. Arnold, The Interpretation of Scripture. Ibid. Sermons, vol. vi. p. 57. Bishop Woodford, Occasional Sermons, p. 161. H. P. Liddon, Contemporary Pulpit, vol vi. p. 65.
A full meal is like Sisera's banquet, at the end of which there is a nail struck into the head.
I did long achingly, then and for four-and-twenty hours afterwards, for something to fetch me out of my present existence, and lead me upwards and onwards. This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples. Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench: then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.
—Charlotte Bronte in Villette.
We see the mournful contrast between life and death, which all poetry has lingered over. Greatness, as struck down at one blow, in the midst of its honours and the tribute paid to it, produces a passing emotion of sympathy even in the mind of the Jewish prophetess, while her main thoughts follow her country's rescue: and the mighty foe is laid low in that grand solemnity of verse, and in that sad picture of death, in which a high compassion speaks: 'At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down; at her feet he bowed, he fell; where he bowed, there he fell down dead'.
The sentiment even of the woman's delight in the dresses won in the spoils transpires through the warlike rejoicing: the pieces of embroidery are counted over in imagination as they are torn away from the mother and the harem of Sisera for the women of Israel.
The exultation with which the poet dwells on the treachery of the act, on the helpless prostration of the great captain's corpse before a mere woman's knees; the terrible minuteness with which she gloats over the raised expectations of the mother of the murdered soldier; the picture of the 'wise ladies' in attendance suggesting triumphant reasons for the delay, and of the anxious eagerness with which she even suggested these reasons to herself—no doubt indicate fierce personal as well as fierce patriotic triumph. But the whole tenor of this grand poem and the conclusion, 'So let all thy enemies perish, O Lord; but let them that love Thee be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might,' at all events prove that the personal hatred was so closely bound up with the representative feelings of the writer as a judge of Israel, and with her trust in the Lord of Hosts, that the latter lent a kind of halo to the unscrupulous ferocity of the former.
—R. H. Hutton.
Compare Cromwell's description of the battle of Marston Moor. 'Truly England and the Church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord, in this great Victory given unto us, such as the like never was since this War began. It had all the evidences of an absolute Victory obtained by the Lord's blessing upon the godly party principally. We never charged but we routed the enemy.... The particulars I cannot relate now; but I believe, of twenty thousand the Prince hath not four thousand left. Give glory, all the glory, to God.'
Speaking in 1657 of his own Protectorate, Cromwell declared: 'I profess, I think I may say: Since the beginning of that change—though I should be loath to speak anything vainly—but since the beginning of that change to this day, I do not think there hath been a freer procedure of the Laws, not even in those years called, and not unworthily, the "Halcyon Days of Peace"—from the Twentieth of Elizabeth to King James' and King Charles' time. I do not think but the Laws have proceeded with as much freedom and justice since I came to the Government, as they did in those years so named "Halcyon".'
Jewish Zeal, a Pattern to Christians
A certain fire of zeal, showing itself, not by force and blood, but as really and certainly as if it did—cutting through natural feelings, neglecting self, preferring God's glory to all things, firmly resisting sin, protesting against sinners, and steadily contemplating their punishment, is a duty belonging to all creatures of God, a duty of Christians, in the midst of all that excellent overflowing charity which is the highest Gospel grace, and the fulfilling of the second table of the Law.
—J. H. Newman.
References.—V. 31.—A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—Judges, p. 217. V. 31.—J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. iv. p. 173. V.—M. Dods, Israel's Iron Age, p. 173.
Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves.
Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the LORD; I will sing praise to the LORD God of Israel.
LORD, when thou wentest out of Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water.
The mountains melted from before the LORD, even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel.
In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through byways.
The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.
They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?
My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the LORD.
Speak, ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, and walk by the way.
They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel: then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates.
Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.
Then he made him that remaineth have dominion over the nobles among the people: the LORD made me have dominion over the mighty.
Out of Ephraim was there a root of them against Amalek; after thee, Benjamin, among thy people; out of Machir came down governors, and out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer.
And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley. For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart.
Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
Gilead abode beyond Jordan: and why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the sea shore, and abode in his breaches.
Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.
The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; they took no gain of money.
They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.
The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.
Then were the horsehoofs broken by the means of the pransings, the pransings of their mighty ones.
Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the LORD, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty.
Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent.
He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.
She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen's hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.
At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead.
The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots?
Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself,
Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera a prey of divers colours, a prey of divers colours of needlework, of divers colours of needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take the spoil?
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. And the land had rest forty years.