Judges 5:16
Why abodest thou 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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(16) 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.



Jdg 5:16

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.

5:12-23 Deborah called on her own soul to be in earnest. He that will set the hearts of other men on fire with the love of Christ, must himself burn with love. Praising God is a work we should awake to, and awake ourselves unto. She notices who fought against Israel, who fought for them, and who kept away. Who fought against them. They were obstinate enemies to God's people, therefore the more dangerous. Who fought for them. The several tribes that helped are here spoken of with honour; for though God is above all to be glorified, those who are employed must have their due praise, to encourage others. But the whole creation is at war with those to whom God is an enemy. The river of Kishon fought against their enemies. At most times it was shallow, yet now, probably by the great rain that fell, it was so swelled, and the stream so deep and strong, that those who attempted to pass, were drowned. Deborah's own soul fought against them. When the soul is employed in holy exercises, and heart-work is made of them, through the grace of God, the strength of our spiritual enemies will be trodden down, and will fall before us. She observes who kept away, and did not side with Israel, as might have been expected. Thus many are kept from doing their duty by the fear of trouble, the love of ease, and undue affection to their worldly business and advantage. Narrow, selfish spirits care not what becomes of God's church, so that they can but get, keep, and save money. All seek their own, Php 2:21. A little will serve those for a pretence to stay at home, who have no mind to engage in needful services, because there is difficulty and danger in them. But we cannot keep away from the contest between the Lord and his enemies; and if we do not actively endeavour to promote his cause in this wicked world, we shall fall under the curse against the workers of iniquity. Though He needs no human help, yet he is pleased to accept the services of those who improve their talents to advance his cause. He requires every man to do so.Great searchings - (thoughts, 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. 15. Then comes a reproachful notice of the tribes which did not obey the summons to take the field against the common enemy of Israel. By the

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.

Why wast thou so unworthy and cowardly, so void of all zeal for God, and compassion towards thy brethren, and care for the recovery of thy own liberties and privileges, 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 present case and safety, before this generous undertaking? Reuben thought neutrality their wisest course, being very rich in cattle, 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.

Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks?.... This tribe abounded with flocks and herds, and therefore chose the country on the other side Jordan, as suitable for them; and now, at this critical juncture, they judged it wisest, and their best policy, to abide by them, and the care of them; lest by intermeddling, should Jabin prevail, he might be provoked to fall upon them, and take them from them; wherefore the bleatings of their flocks, and the whistlings of the shepherds that kept them, sounded louder in their ears, and more engrossed their attention, than the groans and cries of Israel under oppression; or than the soundings of the trumpet, the alarm of war, or the loud calls of Deborah and Barak; being under the influence of a carnal worldly spirit, and wanting affection and sympathy towards their brethren, about which Deborah here expostulates with them:

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.
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 5:16שׂרי, "my princes," does not furnish any appropriate meaning, as neither Deborah nor Barak was of the tribe of Issachar, and it is not stated anywhere that the Issacharites gathered round Deborah as their leaders. The reading שׂרי (stat. constr.), adopted by the old versions, must be taken as the correct one, and the introduction of the preposition בּ does not preclude this (compare בגּלבּע הרי, 2 Samuel 1:21, and Ewald, 289, b.). עם, which is used to denote an outward equality, as in 1 Samuel 17:42, and is substantially the same as the כּן which follows ("just as"), is construed without כּ in the first clause, as in Psalm 48:6. בּעמק: into the valley of Jezreel, the plain of Kishon. בּרגליו שׁלּח, as in Job 18:8, to be sent off, i.e., incessantly impelled, through his feet; here it is applied to an irresistible force of enthusiasm for the battle. The nominative to שׁלּח is Issachar and Barak.

15b At the brooks of Reuben were great resolutions of heart.

16 Why remainest thou between the hurdles,

To hear the piping of the flocks?

At the brooks of Reuben were great projects of heart.

17 Gilead rests on the other side of the Jordan;

And Dan ... why tarries he by ships?

Asher sits on the shore of the sea,

And by his bays he reposes.

18 Zebulun, a people that despises its soul even to death,

And Naphtali upon the heights of the field.

In this strophe Deborah first of all mentions the tribes which took no part in the conflict (Judges 5:15-17), and then returns in Judges 5:18 to the Zebulunites, who staked their life along with Naphtali for the deliverance of Israel from the yoke of the enemy. The enumeration of the tribes who remained at a distance from the conflict commences with Reuben (Judges 5:15 and Judges 5:16). In this tribe there did arise a lively sympathy with the national elevation. They held meetings, passed great resolutions, but it led to no practical result; and at length they preferred to remain quietly at home in their own comfortable pastoral life. The meaning brooks for פּלגּות is well established by Job 20:17, and there is no reason whatever for explaining the word as equivalent to פּלגּות, מפלגּות, divisions (2 Chronicles 35:5, 2 Chronicles 35:12; Ezra 6:18). The territory of Reuben, which was celebrated for its splendid pastures, must have abounded in brooks. The question, Why satest thou, or remainedst thou sitting between the hurdles? i.e., in the comfortable repose of a shepherd's life, is an utterance of amazement; and the irony is very apparent in the next clause, to hear the bleating of the flocks, i.e., the piping of the shepherds, instead of the blast of the war-trumpets.

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