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Redeeming the Book of Judges

Preaching from the Book of Judges and pointing to Christ.
Redeeming the Book of Judges
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On March 29, 1996, a new documentary series premiered on E!, an NBC-affiliated entertainment network. The first episode chronicled the murder of young pop star Rebecca Schaeffer, who was shot and killed by a stalker in 1989. Audiences were treated to a twisting plot of intrigue through the sensationalized scenario of the starlet’s demise. Viewers were hooked. Over a quarter-century later, producers continue to churn out episodes of the E! True Hollywood Story, which boasts a catalogue of over 500 episodes.

A quick Google search sums up the show’s claim to fame: “This documentary series strives to give its audience the inside scoop on Tinseltown’s hottest dishes, ranging from behind-the-scenes tension on hit shows to the real dirt inside a current tabloid scandal.” When you tune into the E! True Hollywood Story you expect to receive an unapologetically uncensored look into the lives and stories of its titillating subjects.

The Book of Judges is the closest thing that you will find to an E! True Hollywood Story on the pages of your Bible. Within the first six verses, readers meet a Canaanite King who entertains a sick fetish for cutting off the thumbs and big toes of his conquered foes. Justice is served by the tribe of Judah, as they vanquish the forces of Adoni-Bezek, and the conquered king ends his life without thumbs or big toes himself.

This opening scene is the harbinger of what follows, as sex, violence, and deceit fill the pages of this biblical book. The story begins with a Holy War and ends in a Civil War. In between, Israel spirals completely out of control, forfeiting all semblance of their moral distinctiveness. A quick expedition through Judges leaves you wondering if these stories offer any redemptive import for the church today.

Why Should I Preach from the Book of Judges?

You can imagine a modern Christian who spends a little time in the narrative of Judges thinking, I could do without that. Though the sentiment is understandable, it is also inexcusable. If you are a Christian, you cannot do without Judges. The mere fact that the Lord included Judges in our Bibles means that without Judges you and I would be deficient in some way. This is the testimony of God’s Word: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

As Christians, we are incomplete without God’s Word in Judges. If I read a text and it is confusing, frustrating, or stomach turning (and Judges can be all these things), but the Lord tells me that I am deficient without it, imagine how vital it is that I understand it, submit to God’s Word, and grow through it. Judges must be preached because Judges is God’s Word. The competence, character, and instruction of God’s people demands that Judges be brought to bear on the Christian life. As Charles Spurgeon quipped, “there is nothing in the Bible which is ashamed of the light” (Lectures to my Students, 74).

Once the preacher has determined to preach Judges, the challenge remains: How do you do this effectively? Is it doctrinally sound to pluck moralistic principles from these stories, offering them to our congregations as alliterated bullet points on how to act or what to avoid? Is it biblically justified to cherry pick random leadership lessons from the lives of these characters, exhorting our listeners to muster Gideon’s courage, Samson’s strength, Deborah’s conviction? If you’re going to preach “Seven Ways to be Brave like Gideon,” is it just as valid for me to preach “Three Techniques for You to Hit the Nail like Jael” or “Abimelech’s Secret: Three Strategies to Kill the Competition”?

In my study and preaching of Judges it has become clear that this fascinating narrative has been ignored or painfully misrepresented.

The Message of the Book of Judges

Those who desire to preach Judges may face headwinds in today’s American evangelical church. Some leading voices have questioned whether preaching the Old Testament is even necessary for the church to remain faithful to Christ. But it will not do to neglect the Book of Judges (or the rest of the Old Testament), as Jesus claimed it all bears witness to him (John 5:39, Luke 24:44).

As you read Judges, you find a people who are aimless, longing for a true king. When God gives them judges, the salvation they bring to Israel is always temporary. Though each judge plays the role of a savior, as the narrative advances the reader is left wondering, “Who can save these saviors from themselves?” Amidst the carnage of Israel’s corrupt judges, a fully righteous judge is needed. Jesus is the king Israel longed for and the only Savior for sinners. Like all of Scripture, the message of Judges bears witness to Christ.

John Stott described the biblical preacher as one who stands “between two worlds.” Though the 21st century contexts in which we minister may feel like a far cry from the world of Judges, viewing the text in context allows us to bridge the divide. Like any preaching text, effectively handling a passage from Judges requires examining 1) what it says and 2) how it fits.

Examining what the text says is what I call narrative analysis. Examining how it fits entails zooming out to see where this specific moment in redemptive history fits within the wider redemptive story of Scripture.

Narrative Analysis

Narrative analysis involves immersing yourself in a narrative passage by analyzing its shape and substance. Old Testament narrative has certain features in it (substance), that form the stories in a specific way (shape). The preacher must work toward text fluency. By text fluency, I mean a level of immersion in the text that allows the reader to gain clarity on the substance and shape. We can never attain complete fluency, due to our finite nature, which means there is always more beauty and truth to discover in every biblical text. But we should try.

A Sunday sermon that is saturated in Scripture comes through a preacher who is immersed in the text throughout the week.[1] This immersion begins by reading the text, re-reading, praying, and reading some more.

After the preacher is well-acquainted with the narrative, analysis can begin. To thoroughly analyze a narrative text, one should “interrogate” the text, asking questions that reveal its meaning.[2] I suggest focusing on six questions when analyzing a biblical narrative: What happens in the story? Who is it about? When did these events happen? Where does the story take place? How does this specific passage fit the larger narrative? Why does the narrator report the speech acts in the text? These six questions handle plot, characters, historical context, literary context, and speech acts, all vital features of Hebrew narrative.

Immersion in the text leads to the ability to articulate the central ideas in the text, including the text’s main message. Narrative analysis leads the preacher to a central theme or main idea, as well as a workable outline that summarizes the message of the text.

Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutic

Every story in Judges is profitable for the believer. After determining what is there, the preacher must continue to shape the sermon by showing how the text fits within the wider context of Scripture. I am a proponent of the redemptive-historical hermeneutic (RHH), which rests upon the idea that Scripture is a unified story,[3] a grand redemptive narrative, with each passage serving a specific purpose in God’s overall plot.

Thus, a text like Judges doesn’t come to us in a vacuum; rather, the stories, characters, and events within it have an immediate context, and also a larger context within the overarching narrative of Scripture (both contexts must be honored). The RHH perspective holds that, “The whole Bible is the context of the text” (Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 16). Since the whole Bible points to Christ, “In preaching any part of Scripture, one must understand its message in the light of [the center of redemptive history], Jesus Christ.”[4] Although the RHH focuses more on God’s work than man’s need, it actually produces more profound application, since it points listeners beyond emotionalism and moralism, toward the only thing that inspires and enables life change: God and the gospel.

Applying the RHH to a text from Judges requires engaging in the work of biblical theology. This is what Jesus was doing on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Graeme Goldsworthy notes, “Understanding the relationship of the two Testaments involves understanding that the God who has revealed himself finally in Jesus has also revealed himself in the OT in a way that foreshadows … the Christian gospel.”[5] This understanding of God’s revelation, the link between the redemptive history revealed in the OT and the goal of that history (Christ) was so vital, that the risen Christ not only opened the eyes and hearts of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he also did the same for the rest of his disciples later that day (Luke 24:45).

The sermons in Acts prove that these biblical theology lessons stuck with his people. Apostolic preaching in the New Testament describes the prophecies, promises, and predictions of the Old Testament as foreshadowing, finalized, and fulfilled in Jesus. What Acts describes, the rest of the New Testament prescribes (1 Cor. 1:23, Rom, 15:20, 2 Cor. 4:5, Col. 1:28). Indeed, “Paul summed up the content of his preaching by naming a person, Christ” (Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 75). With characteristic precision, J.C. Ryle summarized,

All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do, your preaching is of no use. (Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching, 21)

This does not mean we are to preach only Christ, as if we cannot preach anything else. But it does mean we cannot preach less than Christ. All our preaching must at least contain Christ, whatever else it may address.

Preaching Christ from the OT

Those desiring to preach Christ from all of Scripture will encounter much debate on how to faithfully preach Christ from the Old Testament.

The Christotelic perspective holds that Christ is the goal or destination of the Old Testament. Practitioners of this view stop short of demanding that Christ be explicitly mentioned in every sermon, particularly if preaching Christ is used as an excuse to obscure or neglect the message of the Old Testament text in its immediate context.

The Christocentric view holds that Christ is the center of all God’s revelation, and advocates of this approach argue that the witness of Christ should be clearly preached in every biblical sermon, regardless of the preaching text.

It is my contention that Christ is both the goal and center of all God’s revelation (Wellum, “Alpha to Omega,” 75, 82), thus one need not consider the Christotelic and Christocentric views as mutually exclusive. By viewing Christ as the goal of God’s revelation, the preacher can chart a path to Christ, without irresponsibly allegorizing. Additionally, by recognizing Christ as the center of all God’s revelation, the preacher is faithful to the metanarrative of redemptive history. Christ’s own hermeneutic approach to the Old Testament allows for this.

The Christian preacher can and should preach Christ in every sermon. I cannot think of a reason not to. The fact that some make bizarre connections from the Old Testament to the person or work of Christ, thereby misusing the RHH model, is no reason to abandon it altogether. Anyone can tear down a hermeneutical straw man, but when taken seriously, there is a compelling case that preaching the witness of Christ from an Old Testament text is both Christotelic and Christocentric.

Preaching Christ from Judges does not mean neglecting the message of the text in its context. It simply means preaching the text in both its immediate and ultimate biblical contexts. There is no reason to swing the pendulum too far in either direction. We can preach Christ and the ethical imperatives of the text, and indeed we must.

Steve Mathewson helpfully summarizes, “Christocentric preachers will also do well to remember that Christ-centered preaching does not preclude calling the people of God to behave, as well as believe, in a certain way” (Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, 25). The Apostle Peter illustrates this in the first chapter of his first Epistle as he encourages his readers that the same God who “has caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3) has told us, “You also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15). Holiness is not how we are saved, but it is one of the reasons why we are saved.

Proponents of the RHH have offered numerous ways to validly preach the witness of Christ from an Old Testament text. Sidney Greidanus has systematized these ways as well as anyone in his seminal work, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. The ways of contrast, typology, analogy, longitudinal themes, and redemptive historical progression all reveal the witness of Christ from the texts of Judges.

The judges play a redemptive role in their respective generations, operating as saviors sent from God to deliver his people (Judges 2:16). In these roles, each figure casts a shadow of the full and final Savior, sent from God to save his people. As the story of Judges spirals downward, the compromise of Israel and their leaders reveals the need for a Spirit-filled Savior whose deliverance of God’s people will last forever. This Savior will be a priest unlike the compromised Levites of Judges 17-21. He will be a judge who is truly just and without sin. He will be the king God’s people long for and to whom they will submit. His name is Jesus.

[1] John Piper warns pastors about their study habits, “Your people will know if you are walking with giants or watching television.” John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 2002), 82.

[2] See J.P. Fokkelman , Introducing Biblical Narrative, 208-209; Christopher J.H. Wright, How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for all its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 101-118.

[3] “A single, God-guided, redemptive history is the basis, the foundation, of the unity of the Old and New Testaments.” Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 30.

[4] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 227.

[5] Goldsworthy, “Relationship of Old Testament and New Testament,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 89.

Andrew Murch is the lead pastor of Northwest Gospel Church in Vancouver, WA.

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