Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time.
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.
1. In an age and a season of perpetual unrest, how refreshing is it to the spirit to have before us the example, albeit in a remote past, of one judge who could dwell under the palm-tree between Rama and Bethel, and to whom the children of Israel could go up for judgment. If the right kind of men, a few of them, could be set free to think, to advise, to originate, to counsel, what a gain would this be to a people laden with care, full of intellectual and spiritual perplexities, and feeling themselves terribly alone in their difficult and embarrassing way. For lack of this many lives go utterly astray, and many minds are wrecked on shoals and sandbanks of doubting. It might be said that the two offices of action and thought are only kept distinct in the present state of things, and that those who want counsel have no lack of help from an innumerable crowd of writers. Unhappily the thinkers are too often too much isolated from action, so that they run into vain and profitless speculation, having neither help for this life nor hope in that which is to come. It is the combination which helps: the judge sitting under the palm-tree, but Israel coming up to him for judgment. The moral of it all is, busy men, snatch moments for reflection! let no day be quite without it!
Deborah, a prophetess .... Judged Israel.1. Amongst the women of the Bible Deborah stands out in great prominence, though we know but little of her character. She is one of those who show forth a distinctive characteristic of women — the power of contrivance and design carried out to such an extent as to make some doubt whether her acts were within the limits of religion and morality.
2. Deborah seems to have been a kind of oracle in the unsettled state of things that existed among the Jewish tribes; her advice was attended to and her voice followed by leaders and by armies with the most implicit devotion. Her parallels are many, both in Scripture and history. We are irresistibly reminded of one whose spirit once bore up the flagging energies of France in the annals of the latter, of Judith in those of the former. One circumstance strikes us as highly significant. Starting up close beside her was the kindred spirit of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Though not strictly answerable for the act of Jael, she nevertheless celebrated that act as one of her objects of gratulation in her magnificent hymn.
3. We must view her in two lights. She was of course under a heavenly inspiration, as well as under the guidance of a strong natural character. In the former capacity she is simply to be viewed as one of those instances in which God chooses to show forth His power through the weak things of this world, and to bring about great national crises through the instrumentality of the weaker sex. But placing this view of the subject aside, I will consider her in reference to her natural character and ordinary position, as a woman in the midst of vast and depressing circumstances rousing by the vigour, boldness, and freshness of her character, the flagging energies of men. We see this in many instances of life, public as well as private. How remarkable and almost miraculous it is that the wife, who shares the anxious cares of the husband, be he labourer or mechanic, is able to keep up her spirit and to hope to the end! How often would the man, who has had to contend with the waves of constant trouble, succumb to increasing difficulties; and how many a crisis of difficulty, in connection with illness, accidents, or the like, in the domestic circle, calls forth the presence of mind of the mother, when the father would shrink from the difficulty, and lend no hand to help. Nor is it only this power that is felt so beneficially in the cottage as well as in richer homes. The eye that sees a brighter day and that pierces the fast rolling clouds of present adversity, perceiving the glow of a brighter morning when "the tyranny will be overpast," is especially the eye of woman. One other attribute of woman which comes out in Deborah's story is the deep impression that her mission was Divine, and that the instincts of nature were the gifts of inspiration. There is that spirit in the weaker sex which, in the moment of high crisis and difficulty, would often justify the impression; but this spirit is the gift of God for a special purpose, and is a substitute for those bolder and more persevering qualities which belong to the stronger sex. There are many periods, both in private and in public life, which need rather light shed by a ready and present mind than the steady beam of the more enduring fire. From the lack of it we may miss the object of our life's search. It is the want felt in such conjunctures as these that woman supplies; she bears the lamp of the midnight; and sometimes when with weary watching other lamps have gone out, hers is trimmed.
4. Such is woman's prerogative, such her peculiar characteristic. For though Deborah may be an exaggeration in a remarkable crisis of the characteristics of her sex, they nevertheless exist in more or less force in every representative of it. It is seemingly paradoxical, but no less true, that women should have the power of meeting imminent danger with a calmness and perseverance often denied to man. Let them view these gifts as the direct ordering of Heaven, and, while they glory in them as their heritage, let them cultivate and improve them as the talents committed to their trust.
(E. Monro, M. A.)
2. We see the true place and dignity of woman here in the positive and in the negative. Deborah was a prophetess. God spoke to her. She saw within and beneath the appearance of things. She did not allow the visible to crush out the invisible. She was not appalled by the nine hundred chariots of iron. She knew that there was still a God in Israel who rules in the kingdom of men, and though He bears long with evil, and sometimes sets up over nations the basest of men, He can yet be called on by prayer, and in the long run will make it to be well with the righteous. In a great emergency she became an influence; she called Barak to her, set him his task, assured him of his commission, and even consented at his request to accompany him on his march. This was heroic, but it was also feminine. Deborah did not assume the command of the army; she was the influence, she was the inspiration, but she left the leadership and the generalship to another. Not for nothing have we the record of another woman on the same page with that of Deborah. We shrink instinctively from the bloodstained hand of Jael. She has overstepped the line between the feminine and the masculine — nay, between the enthusiast and the fanatic. The excitement of victory might draw forth the impassioned cry even from one of the male sex, even from one of God's utterers, "Blessed above women"; but that cry has never found even an echo in evangelical hearts; that cry has given trouble and pain to champions of revelation. We cannot receive it as the voice of God's Spirit, except in some modified and softened-down form, in which it hails, and justly hails, the victory as a victory of the cause of the monotheistic idea as against the polytheistic; as a victory of the cause of progress, of the cause of development, and therefore in some sense the cause of mankind and of the world.
3. One last thought occurs, and it might seem at first hearing to conflict with the foregoing; but it is not so. Deborah says to Barak, "Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded?" And he replies to her — a woman — "If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go." She rejoined yet again, "I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." We are not concerned with the last phrase — "God shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Scripture readers see the hand of God every-where — go so far as to say, "Shall there be evil in the city, and the Lord hath not done it?" We ask what was the point, what was the characteristic, the differentia in the faith of Barak, that the Epistle to the Hebrews should single him out for mention? And we find it here in the self-forgetfulness of Barak in doing God's work. What if one woman set him on it, and another woman is to finish it? What if the journey he took was not to be for his own honour? Shall that stop him? What will the troops say if they see a woman marching by his side; see him consult her about his tactics; hear him confess that she is his monitress and his inspirer? Shall that thought deter him? No. He has God's cause in hand; God's honour, not his, is the thing to aim at. Here is faith forgetting itself in the cause. It is a grand heroism; for lack of it much good work is spoilt and much forborne. There is a phrase which more often disguises than precludes the self-glorifying. Humble instruments all call themselves; yet the same modest disclaimer asserts the instrumentality. Propose to omit the name from the subscription list or the list of patrons, where will the humble instrument be then? "The journey which thou takest shall not be for thine honour." No, for one woman suggested it and another woman shall complete it. What then? Faith is willing to have it so; for faith is the sight of the invisible, and this arrangement will show the Invisible, the Doer.
(Bp. H. C. Potter.)
If thou wilt go with me, then I will go
(Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)
I. WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE FOR OUR INFLUENCE. This is evident from the very nature of influence. What is it? It is power; the power of one will over another. This power and authority go forth from us to others in various ways — in speech, by action, by the glance of the eye, by the expression of feeling, by the show of passion, by the play of the countenance, by the motion of the hand, by our dress, our habits, our style of living, and our conduct. And now I ask — if I cause a man to do an act, am I not responsible, i.e., so far forth as I lead him to do it? Of course I am not to bear the entire burden of his conduct, for he is a man as well as I, and he is bound to think and judge for himself. But if I am the stronger, more controlling character, and use my influence to guide him astray, and start him on his way to ruin, surely I am responsible for what I do. But it is manifest that this principle is not one that is local, partial, or limited. It is a broad, general, universal principle; pertaining to souls under all circumstances. And see how it reaches our fellow-creatures on every side, with awful significance and tremendous power. I am responsible for my influence; I am held accountable by the Almighty for the way in which I affect and prompt the souls of my fellow-men. Then I am responsible for my influence upon you. Then you are responsible for your influence upon me; and each and every one of us is responsible for the influence we exert upon our neighbours. Then we are responsible for the channels by which our influence goes forth from us to others. And we are responsible for their outflowings; and though the influence of a man differs somewhat, in kind, from his specific acts, yet the law of Divine justice comes in here, with the same force and authority as in any outward deed.
II. THE MEASURE OF OUR RESPONSIBILITY IS PROPORTIONED TO OUR INFLUENCE. Herein lies our stewardship. We are stewards of God in the particular item of influence. A little girl is beloved by her schoolmate; and so great power has she over her, that that schoolmate will do anything she wants her to do, good or bad. She is responsible for her control over that child's soul, and to God. They are both responsible for the power they possess, the one over the other. Here is a man in a community, of such commanding power, whether through wealth, talent, or character, that everybody quotes him as authority, and aims to follow in his track. As sure as God liveth, He will hold him responsible for his popularity and his power.
III. INFLUENCE IS AN AWFUL, A PERILOUS THING WHEN IT ASSUMES THE FORM AND PROPORTIONS OF MASTERY AND CONTROL. And this is often the case. The mass of men, the world over, are governed by opinion and example. Imitation, too, is a most powerful agent in deciding the convictions and habits of men. No doubt it is God's will that certain prominent men should have authoritative influence; that is their calling; to that they are elected by the Almighty Himself, to the end that they may help to quicken inferior wills, and to decide human destinies. Thus in the family relation the words of a father or mother go with children to mature manhood, and may descend to children's children. How in our school-days our hearts have become knit "as with hooks of steel" to companions whom we have loved as Jonathan loved David, with a "love passing the love of women." I have myself seen men moving about through a nation, after whom millions of men flowed as with the mighty current of a torrent; and when they spoke, momentous questions were settled, as though decisive utterances had come forth from an oracle or a god. But the illustrations of this controlling influence of men is as common in the lowlier spheres of life as in the higher. Sometimes a grand, noble parent serves his generation and blesses it, and then sends down the crystal purity of his honour and the odour of his sanctity to children's children. Sometimes it is the reverse, and the alcoholic blood and the alcoholic breath of a drunkard triumphs over the dominion of the grave, and reaches over a whole generation of men to his descendants, poisoning the atmosphere and polluting society by the sottishness of sons and grandsons.
Is not the Lord gone out before thee
Homilist.Wherever we may be called upon to go, our Lord has gone before us.
I. WE ARE ENTERING INTO DARKNESS. God is light. What does it matter what we see, or whether we see at all, if He has seen and known that the way is safe?
II. WE ARE ENTERING UPON UNCERTAINTY. But all things are fixed and ordered by God's power, and from knowledge.
III. WE ARE ENTERING UPON DIFFICULTY. God is almighty in power.
IV. WE ARE TO MEET WITH PAIN AND DEATH. God cannot die. Learn:
1. To distrust all human help and consolation.
2. To trust in Him who is so well able to do for us, and to be to us all we need.
3. To implicitly follow and confidently resign ourselves to His leadership.
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