Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE PERMANENT TENDENCY TO EVIL. "When Ehud was dead" should be "for Ehud was dead." The eighty years of "rest" which the land enjoyed, and during the whole or most of which Ehud had ruled, now came to an end. But not causelessly. The "children of Israel again did (continued to do) evil in the sight of the Lord." The interval of comparative piety is over, and the under-current of distrust and idolatry again resumes its influence. The spiritual fidelity of Israel is an occasional thing; the apostasy is the result of a permanent tendency, often checked, but ever recovering its sway. "The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21). "And God saw that.., every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). Israel is described as "a people that provoketh me to anger continually" (Isaiah 65:3), etc. The best of men have been the first to confess their inherent depravity. At a religious meeting held in Florence, when the lowest and vilest of the city were present, the question was asked, "Is there one here who is not a sinner?" Only one man dared to say in bravado, "I am not!" but he was speedily silenced by the jeers and condemnation of the audience. The duty and wisdom of all is, therefore, not to question the existence of this tendency, but to guard against it. Unbelief is "the sin that doth so easily beset us" (Hebrews 12:1). Nor are we only the passive subjects of improving influences in the providence of God and the order of the world. We are to be "fellow-workers with God," "to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for (or because) it is God that worketh in us," etc. (Philippians 2:12). In dealing with our fellow-men or ourselves we must ever reckon upon this, the force of inborn corruption.
II. TEMPORARY MORAL INFLUENCES. That these have such weight at one time or another is a strong proof that salvation is not from within, neither, on the other hand, can it be wholly from without. We see here -
1. How much is involved sometimes in a personal influence. Ehud, by the moral ascendancy he had acquired, is for the time the bulwark of his people's faith. Such power is a precious gift. In measure like this it is the possession of the few. But every one has some moral influence, either for good or evil. "None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself" (Romans 14:7). It ought to be our care so to behave that our influence shall be increasingly for righteousness. But there are limits and imperfections in this. Although "the memory of the just smells sweet, and blossoms in the dust," it is present influence with most of us that is most vividly impressive and practically effective. Still we can never gauge the extent of our influence. In God's hands it may be multiplied indefinitely. In Christ we see the most glorious instance of personal, spiritual ascendancy. And his power shall never fail.
2. The moral effect of a material advantage, The presence of Sisera in "Harosheth of the Gentiles" - 'probably Harethieh, a hill or mound at the south-eastern corner of the plain of Acca, close behind the hills that divide this plain from that of Jezreel, on the north side of the Kishon, yet so near the foot of Carmel as only to leave a passage for the river' (Thomson, 'The Land and the Book,' ch. 29.) - with "nine hundred chariots of iron" overawed the Israelites (cf. ch. 1:19); and "twenty years he mightily oppressed" them. This force powerfully affected their imagination, and rendered them all but helpless. They forgot that God is able to break the chariots in pieces, and to make all their massive strength a disadvantage and a difficulty, as when the Egyptians laboured heavily in the Red Sea sand and waves; that the spirit that animates an army is greater than weapons or fortifications. But this cowardice of Israel just corresponds with the fear that so often unmans Christians of to-day, when confronted with great names, popular prejudices, and the shows and forces of the world. Nothing is easier than to over-estimate opposition of this sort. We have to learn in strenuous contest that "greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world" (1 John 4:4).
3. Spiritual power vindicating itself amid external weakness. Amidst the universal decay of religion there are ever a few who "have not bowed the knee unto Baal." God never entirely deserts even his unfaithful ones. Some are left from whom the new era may take a beginning.
(1) Jehovah does not leave his people without a witness. As at other times of national misfortune a judge is raised up, "Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time." Her authority is recognised, for "the children of Israel came up to her for judgment." A certain negative and secular respect is accorded to her. Divine ideas have no active power Over the lives of the people; but Divine officials and institutions are still acknowledged in the general government and social life of Israel. She herself, however, is evidently full of the Spirit of Jehovah, and magnifies her office. The singularity of a woman exercising judicial functions has a powerful effect upon the national mind. Even the leading men and mighty soldiers obey her.
(2) This witness is an instance of Strength in weakness. The witness is only a woman. A sign this of the decay of the heroic spirit. But she initiates a bold and warlike policy. Evidently rising above the weakness of her sex, like Joan of Arc, she is determined to break the spell of the "nine hundred chariots of iron." The moral power she has obtained is seen in the obedience of Barak to her call and her instructions, the general answer of the nation to her summons, and the refusal of Barak to go against the enemy unless she accompanied them. So in the Messenian war ('Paus.' 4:16) "the soldiers fought bravely because their seers were present." We are not to understand Barak's insistency as cowardliness or perversity, but as a further tribute to the presence of God in his servant. The Ironsides fought bravely when they went into battle from praise and prayer. As the exigency is great, so the instrument of restoration is most insignificant and humiliating. - M.
I. THEY WHO UNDERTAKE TO ADVOCATE DIFFICULT TASKS SHOULD BE WILLING TO SHARE THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE EXECUTION OF THEM. Deborah urges Barak to fight; Barak will raise the standard only on condition that the prophetess will accompany him. There are prophets who sit with Deborah under the palm tree and advise noble deeds while they excuse themselves from facing the danger of achieving them. In the spiritual warfare of the Church we find critics who can see the defects of the work others are doing, and advise great improvements, yet who will never encounter the perils of the mission-field or the drudgery of more homely work. It is well to devise good measures, but it is better, like Deborah, to help in the execution of them.
II. IN THE BATTLE OF LIFE A GREAT VARIETY OF SERVICE IS REQUISITE FOR FINAL SUCCESS. Deborah cannot lead the army, but she can inspire it. Barak cannot prophesy, but he can fight. Thus Deborah cannot secure victory without Barak, nor Barak without Deborah. We are members one of another, and all the members have not the same office. There is work for the seer and work for the warrior. The world always needs its prophets and its heroes. The worker without the thinker will blunder into confusion; the thinker without the worker will fail for want of power to execute his designs. Brain work is at least as important as mechanical work. It is therefore foolish for practical men to despise the men of thought as mere theorists, and foolish for the thinkers to treat the active men of business with philosophical contempt. It is peculiarly woman's work to cheer and encourage those who are called to the dangerous tasks of life. Wives and mothers who dissuade their husbands and sons from their duty because it appears to be dangerous are indulging in weak and foolish affection. The highest love will seek to encourage those who are loved in all that is great and noble.
III. IN THE SERVICE OF GOD THE FIRST REQUISITE FOR SUCCESS IS THE INSPIRING AID OF THE SPIRIT OF GOD. Deborah is a prophetess. She is gifted with the wisdom and enthusiasm of direct inspiration, and thus becomes the inspirer of Barak and his troops. Barak feels that if Deborah goes with him God's counsel and encouragement will be given him. Do we not trust too much to the mere machinery of our Church organisations in the execution of our work? One prophet in our midst is worth a thousand dull, earthly-minded men The great need of the Church in her battle with the evil of the world is the presence of the Spirit of God in light and power, to guide and to energise her dark and weak efforts. It is foolish to go up to our spiritual warfare without seeking the presence of God to accompany us (Exodus 33:15). If God go with us we shall need no special order of prophets, for then every soldier of Christ will be a prophet (Joel 2:28). - A.
I. HE WHO DEPENDS UPON MATERIAL RESOURCES WILL BE SUBJECT -
1. To sudden alarms. It reads like a surprise. They were at ease, relying upon military strength and prestige, when the news of Barak's march upon Mount Tabor came to their ears. But how disproportionate the force Sisera so suddenly summons to arms! It is ignorance trying to cope with experience and skill; scanty equipment confronting all that a great and powerful nation could invent and provide for military defence and offence. Yet already it was a point in favour of Israel that it had aroused such apprehension for so slight a cause. The conscience of the wicked is never easy. The least sign of danger is sufficient to rouse it, and to occasion the most disproportionate exertions.
2. To rash exposure of his resources. "All the chariots of iron," the military power and glory of the oppressor, are at once called into exercise. This was unwise. A little more consideration would have suggested a better and more prudent disposal of his forces. It is evidently feeling, and not far-seeing military prescience, that dictates the pompous demonstration. How often do the oppressors of God's "little ones" drive their tyranny too far, and defeat their own end by over-eagerness and domineering imperiousness! The heart that God has inspired will look upon such things - the threats, etc. - as of little moment.
3. To utter collapse. The suddenness of. the levy was adverse to its efficiency. Subject as Eastern troops are to panics, and difficult as it must have been for such cumbrous vehicles to deploy upon such varying levels, it was only necessary for the handful of Israelites to be led by a skilful general for them to produce confusion and dismay in the unwieldy host. And when once the huge army began to yield, its own size and bulk would make its defeat the more disastrous. And all was risked at once. There was nothing more upon which, quickly enough, to fall back. So in the hour of the Church's peril and extremity God has found his opportunity. The Pope's bull is burnt, and the Reformation commences boldly and decidedly. "Fear not, I am with thee," has been the voice that has made the turning-point in many a career. All the pomp and show of the world is brought to bear upon the saint; he sees through it; a step, a stroke, and it melts like the "airy vision of a dream," and he is free!
II. HE WHO DEPENDS UPON GOD will -
1. See opportunity and hope against overwhelming odds. "Up, for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand. 'So David - "The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine" (1 Samuel 17:37). So Gideon. This is the insight of faith.
2. Make careful preparation. "Trust in God, and keep your powder dry." The means, however inadequate, the best means at our disposal, must be employed. "God doesn't require my knowledge" "No more does he require your ignorance." It is a sign of respect to God, and a mark of thorough-going faith in him, that we make scrupulous use of the means he dictates. Often the "means of grace" are despised, to a church's loss, to a Christian's loss, and sometimes destruction. "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, etc.
3. Confide in the Divine presence and promises. Abraham is sure that "God will provide himself a lamb;" David sings: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil;" and the Hebrew children were confident that the "God whom they served was able to deliver them." Faith as a grain of mustard seed "will remove mountains." - M.
I. OPPRESSION ROUSES THE DARKEST PASSIONS OF THE OPPRESSED. Jael's treacherous murder of Sisera did not occur in an age of peace and comfort, but after her nation had been terribly crushed by the Canaanite power. The worst evil of tyranny is not found in the mere distress which it brings on those who suffer from it, but in the bad passions which it provokes. The oppressed are degraded morally; they grow revengeful; unequal to open resistance, they become treacherous; misery blinds them to the claims of humanity Slaves are too often cruel and treacherous. This fact, instead of excusing slavery, is its heaviest condemnation.
II. CRUELTY MAY EXPECT TO BE REWARDED WITH TREACHERY. Sisera was no innocent soldier falling in the discharge of loyal service to his country. He had "mightily oppressed the children of Israel." Harshness may appear to silence all opposition, but it really provokes the most dangerous enmity - secret and treacherous enmity. Sisera meets with a just doom. There is something cowardly in brutal oppression; it is fitting that the man who descended to practise it should not fall in honourable warfare, but meet his miserable fate at the hands of a deceitful woman.
III. THE GUILT OF A CRIME MUST BE MEASURED BY THE MOTIVE WHICH INSTIGATED IT. A cold-blooded crime committed for low ends of personal profit is far more wicked than the same deed done in the heat of provoked passion. The act which is committed for the good of others is less wicked than that which is entirely selfish in its motives. The motive of Jael was patriotic. She anticipated no danger to herself from Sisera, but she thought to rid her country of a great and cruel enemy. So far she was brave and noble.
IV. THE UTILITY OF THE END WILL NEVER EXCUSE THE WICKEDNESS OF THE MEANS EMPLOYED TO SECURE IT. Jael was no vulgar murderess. Her patriotic motive mitigated the guilt of her crime, but it did not destroy that guilt. She was guilty of a breach of the sacred rights of hospitality. Did she meditate murder when she welcomed Sisera into her tent? Possibly not. It may be that the sight of the sleeping man suggested the temptation to an easy way of delivering her nation from a great enemy. If so, her treachery was so much the less guilty. But the very warmth of her ostentatious hospitality offered to such a man as Sisera suggests only too forcibly that she meant treachery from the first. That grim scene - the weary soldier trusting himself in the hands of the murderous woman, while she lavishes her hospitality on him with fearful schemes working in her brain - is surely no picture of womanly glory, in whatever age we set it, with whatever provocations we mitigate its dark horror. Jael is plainly guilty of a gross breach of trust. We must not shut our eyes to her criminality because she did a deed on the side of the Jews which we should have condemned with loathing if it had been committed by a less enlightened, heathen, Canaanite woman. Reverence for the teaching of Scripture does not require us to excuse the faults of the Jews. - (Jael the Kenite was practically a Jewess.) It is most degrading to the conscience to read the dark pages of Hebrew history with the understanding that we must condemn nothing done by an Israelite. It is also false to the intentions of Scripture. In the Bible we see the failings of good men and the personal wickedness of some who took their stand on the right side. The merit of their cause does not destroy the guilt of their individual conduct. Deceit and cruelty have sometimes been practised in the interests of Christianity, of liberty, of humanity; but the only service God will accept must be fair, and true, and pure. - A.