Why stayed you among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)Sheepfolds.—Literally, hurdles (mishpethaim), the dual form being due to some method of their construction. Hence the Vulgate renders, inter duos terminos.
The bleatings of the flocks.—Rather, the sounds of shepherds’ flutes or pastoral pipings (“Shepherds delighting in syrinx-pipes,” Hom., Il. xviii. 525). There is a contrast between these peaceful flutings and the battle-horns to which they ought to have been listening. It is as though Deborah would say to Reuben—
“Sound, sound the clarion, shrill the fife;
To all the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.”
For the divisions.—It should be, as before, “By the streams of Reuben.”
Searchings of heart.—Reuben sent magnanimous debates and promises, but they only ended in sloth and vacillation. They decided to go, and—stayed at home.
I. The fight.
The warfare is ever repeated, though in new forms. In the highest form it is Christ versus the World, And that conflict must be fought out in our own souls first. Our religion should lead not only to accept and rely on what Christ does for us, but to do and dare for Christ. He has given Himself for us, and has thereby won the right to recruit us as His soldiers. We have to fight against ourselves to establish His reign over ourselves.
And then we have to give our personal service in the great battle for right and truth, for establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. There come national crises when every man must take up arms, but in Christ’s kingdom that is a permanent obligation. There the nation is the army. Each subject is not only His servant but His soldier. The metaphor is well worn, but it carries everlasting truth, and to take it seriously to heart would revolutionise our lives.
II. The reason for standing aloof. Reuben ‘abode in the sheepfolds to hear the pipings to the flocks.’ For Dan his ships, for Asher his havens held them apart. Reuben and the other trans-Jordanic tribes held loosely by the national unity. They had fallen in love with an easy life of pastoral wealth, they did not care to venture anything for the national good. It is still too true that like reasons are largely operative in producing like results. It is seldom from the wealthy and leisurely classes that the bold fighters for great social reformations are recruited. Times of commercial prosperity are usually times of stagnation in regard to these. Reuben lies lazily listening to the ‘drowsy tinklings’ that ‘lull’ not only ‘the distant folds’ but himself to inglorious slumber, while Zebulon and Naphtali are ‘venturing their lives on the high places of the field.’ The love of ease enervates many a one who should be doing valiantly for the ‘Captain of his salvation.’ The men of Reuben cared more for their sheep than for their nation. They were not minded to hazard these by listening to Deborah’s call. And what their flocks were to that pastoral tribe, their business is to shoals of professing Christians. The love of the world depletes the ranks of Christ’s army, and they are comparatively few who stick by the colours and are ‘ready, aye ready’ for service, as the brave motto of one English regiment has it. The lives of multitudes of so-called Christians are divided between strained energy in their business or trade or profession and self-regarding repose. No doubt competition is fierce, and, no doubt, a Christian man is bound, ‘whatsoever his hand finds to do, to do it with his might,’ and, no doubt, rest is as much a duty as work. But must not loyalty to Jesus have become tepid, if a servant of His has so little interest in the purposes for which He gave His life that he can hear no call to take active part in promoting them, nor find rest in the work by which he becomes a fellow-worker with his Lord?
III. The recreant’s brave resolves which came to nothing. The indignant question of our text is, as it were, framed between two clauses which contrast Reuben’s indolent holding aloof with his valorous resolves. ‘By the watercourses of Reuben there were great resolves of heart.’ . . . ‘At the watercourses of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.’ Resolves came first, but they were not immediately acted on, and as the Reubenites sate among the sheepfolds and felt the charm of their peaceful lives, the ‘native hue of resolution was sicklied o’er,’ and doubts of the wisdom of their gallant determination crept in, and their valour oozed out. And so for all their fine resolves, they had no share in the fight nor in the triumph.
So let us lay the warning of that example to heart, and if we are stirred by noble impulses to take our place in the ranks of the fighters for God, let us act on these at once. Emotions evaporate very soon if they are not used to drive the wheels of conduct. The Psalmist was wise who ‘delayed not, but made haste and delayed not to keep God’s commandments.’ Many a man has over and over again resolved to serve God in some specific fashion, and to enlist in the ‘effective force’ of Christ’s army, and has died without ever having done it.
IV. The question in the hour of victory. ‘Why?’
Deborah asks it with vehement contempt.
That victory is certain. Are you to have part in it?
The question will be asked on the judgment day by Christ, and by our own consciences. ‘And he was speechless.’
To be neutral is to be on the side of the enemy, against whom the ‘stars fight,’ and whom Kishon sweeps away.
‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’-Who?Jdg 5:16. Why, &c. — Having mentioned with honour the tribes that willingly offered themselves, the prophetess proceeds to expostulate with those who, when summoned to the assistance of their brethren, shamefully refused to arm in the common cause. The first two that she upbraids are Reuben and Gad, who were more solicitous about their cattle than their brethren. The next two are Dan and Asher, who were as meanly intent upon their commerce. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds? — Why wast thou so unworthy and cowardly that thou wouldst not engage thyself in so just, so necessary and so noble a cause, but didst prefer the care of thy sheep, and thy own ease and safety, before this generous undertaking? Reuben thought neutrality their wisest course; being very rich in cattle, Numbers 32:1. They were loath to run the hazard of so great a loss, by taking up arms against so potent an enemy as Jabin: and the bleatings of their sheep were so loud in their ears that they could not hear the call of Deborah and Barak.Judges 5:15) of heart Deborah means to say that at first the Reubenites made magnanimous resolutions to help their brethren against Jabin. But they stayed at home, and let the opportunity slip.
divisions—that is, the watercourses which descend from the eastern hills unto the Jordan and Dead Sea.
For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart—They felt the patriotic impulse and determined, at first, to join the ranks of their western brethren, but resiled from the purpose, preferring their peaceful shepherd songs to the trumpet sound of war.Numbers 32:1. They were loth to run the hazard of so great a loss, by taking up arms against so potent an enemy as Jabin was; and the bleatings of their sheep were so loud in their ears, that they could not hear the call of Deborah and Barak to this expedition.
for the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart; this is repeated to show how much the prophetess, the general of the army, the princes and people, were affected with this conduct of the tribe of Reuben; it gave them much pain and uneasiness, occasioned many inquiries, caused much discourse and conversation, and put them upon thinking, and greatly exercised their minds, what should be the meaning of their behaving after this manner. Cocceius takes these words to be spoken ironically, and renders them,"at the rivers of Reuben were great men in searchings of heart;''there were wisdom, prudence, counsel, searching, and discerning of spirits, preferring their flocks to the people of God.Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)16. among the sheepfolds] Genesis 49:14, cf. Psalm 68:13; the meaning is uncertain; it ought to be ‘fire-places’ or ‘ash-heaps,’ according to the etymology of the Hebr. word.
the pipings for the flocks] The root is used of whistling, hissing, in order to call together, Isaiah 5:26; Isaiah 7:18; Zechariah 10:8; cf. pastoria sibila of Ovid, Met. xiii. 785 (Moore); it does not mean ‘to play on the flute.’ The last line of this verse is incorrectly repeated from Jdg 5:15 b.
Reuben was settled E. of the Jordan, N. of Moab, and probably became to a great extent merged in the native population; see the prayer in Deuteronomy 33:6. Already the tribe was losing political importance; it preferred an isolated, agricultural life to taking part in the national movement.
Gilead] is usually the country occupied by the Israelites on the E. of the Jordan, from the Yarmuk (Sherî‘at el-Menâḍire) in the N. to the valley of Heshbon (Wadi Ḥesbân) in the S. Reuben inhabited the lower part, and East-Manasseh, probably at a later period, obtained possession of the upper. Here Gilead is not a country but a tribe, and, we may suppose, stands for Gad.
Dan, why did he remain in ships?] An obscure line. The reference is not to the southern settlements of Dan (Joshua 19:40 ff.), but to the northern (ch. Jdg 18:27 ff.): the migration described in the latter passage must have taken place before the time of this Ode; see on Jdg 1:34. Laish (Tell el-Ḳâdî, near Bâniâs), however, is far inland; Dan nowhere reached the sea-coast. Hence remain in ships is taken to mean ‘sojourns near the sea-faring people.’ The verb strictly = ‘to dwell as a protected alien,’ and might imply that Dan lived in dependence upon a powerful neighbour; but to take ships as = ‘shipping people,’ i.e. the Phoenicians, is to strain the language. Sojourns in ships might perhaps mean that the Danites had to work the Phoenician galleys, and so were not at liberty to take up the cause of their Israelite brethren (so Budde Comment., and E. Meyer).
Asher] occupied the Hinterland of the Phoenician coast, and perhaps was not sufficiently independent of the Phoenicians to join the Israelite muster.
by his creeks] The word occurs only here; but light is thrown upon it by Arabic, which uses nouns from the same root in the sense of a gap by which boats ascend the mouth of a river; so render landing-places.
In Genesis 49:13 the expressions ‘dwells by the sea shore,’ ‘the shore of ships’ are found in connexion with Zebulun, and may be borrowed from here. Lagrange, on the contrary, thinks that they are inserted here from Genesis 49, and that Dan and Asher are foreign to the original text; he retains creeks in the sense of gorges for Gilead. This is one way of overcoming the difficulties.Judges 10:4; Judges 12:14). צהר, lit. dazzling white; but since there are no asses that are perfectly white, and white was a colour that was highly valued both by Hebrews and Arabs, they applied the term white to those that were only spotted with white. Those who sit upon coverings (מדּין from מד, a covering or carpet, with the plural termination ין, which is to be regarded as a poetical Chaldaism) are the rich and prosperous; and those who walk on the way, i.e., travellers on foot, represent the middle and lower classes, who have to go about and attend to their affairs. Considered logically, this triple division of the nation is not a very exact one, as the first two do not form a true antithesis. But the want of exactness does not warrant our fusing together the middle term and the first, and understanding by middin either saddles or saddle-cloths, as Ewald and Bertheau have done; for saddle-cloths are still further from forming an antithesis to asses, so that those who ride upon white asses could be distinguished, as the upper classes and leaders, from those who sit upon saddles, or are "somewhat richer." Moreover, there is no reason for regarding these three classes as referring simply to the long line of warriors hastening from the victory to the triumphal fte. On the contrary, all classes of the people are addressed, as enjoying the fruits of the victory that had been obtained: the upper classes, who ride upon their costly animals; the rich resting at home upon their splendid carpets; and the poor travellers, who can now go quietly along the high-road again without fear of interruption from the foe (Judges 5:6). שׂיחוּ is rendered "sing" by many; but this rendering cannot be sustained from Psalm 105:2 and Psalm 145:5, and it is not necessary on the verse before us, since the well-established meaning of the word "ponder," reflect, sc., upon the acts of the Lord, is a perfectly suitable one.
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