Images of the Savior (15 – The Darkness before the Dawn)
I have lately gone through a period of sluggish affections, dullness of heart, and spiritual sight much dimmed by a morbid preoccupation with the affairs of this passing world, which have drawn my gaze away from the light-shedding Sun of Righteousness, whose first advent was the Dawn of the year of God’s favor, and whose hastening second coming will be the eternal noon of Glory. I cannot enumerate all the causes of this decay, although I am certain that they all spring from the depths of my desperately wicked and deceitful heart; but I do know that even in this, God’s sovereign mercy still leads unerringly through the night, working out eternal purposes of good which he has planned for me, and will not relent until he has accomplished them all.
I also think it not a coincidence that this has taken place at the end of my journey through the book of the Judges, whose moral failings, becoming ever greater with each passing generation, demonstrate the need for a truer Savior, who will deliver not just from bondage to the Philistines and Midianites, but from slavery to sin and its father. I just returned to this book, after an extended absence, to find a dark and distressing time when there was no king and every man did that which was right in his own eyes, and the devastating consequences of this moral autonomy had become shocking and grotesque. As I read through these episodes, I felt poignantly the agonizing longing for the King to appear and rescue his helpless people. The first salvation of Joshua had been accomplished, and it bespoke an eternal purpose of grace; for the gifts and calling of God are without repentance (Romans 11:29). But that salvation had not been sufficient. The rest that Joshua gave the people was strangely like constant fret and turmoil. Their new Eden was much like the old Sodom that met a fiery demise beneath the onslaught of God’s wrath. Oh, for a greater Savior than Joshua! Oh, for another Sabbath rest (see Hebrews 3:7 – 4:13), a new era, a year of God’s favor! How deeply did my own spirit groan with this longing; for I, too, like Israel of old, had known certain signs of God’s unchanging favor; but still, days of darkness had come into my life, and the consummation of rest and peace eluded me for a time.
Joshua was gone. The judges were gone. There was no king. When would a David arise? We cannot tell. And so, without resolution, the book ends.
But is that not the perfect introduction to the coming book of Ruth? Yes, God’s people were in distress; but on the horizon there appears a certain sign of victory, coming from a most unlikely place – there, in Moab, from a bitter old widow and an alien daughter-in-law, bright hope comes streaming into the land! A kinsman-redeemer is found; a womb becomes fruitful; and the way for a David is paved. Thus this dark and troubling book is bordered on both sides by two women whose unexpected stories of surprising grace bear witness to the certain coming of the awaited Savior: at the beginning, Rahab the harlot, whose lineage is a scarlet thread leading to Messiah; and at the end, Ruth, who is called out from her land and kindred to bear Jesse the Bethlehemite, that root from which the righteous Branch will spring up for our eternal salvation (Isaiah 11:1-5). These two women, highlighted in Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1), are signs of God’s favor to a Bride bought from every nation, which no darkness or oppressor can finally keep from his coming wedding feast.
Let us just mention a few things about these two concluding episodes to the book of Judges. First, in the account of Micah and the ephod, we see the depths of depravity and idolatry exactly where we would hope to see true religion and holiness. There in the promised land, even in Bethlehem of Judea, and even among the Levitical descendants of Moses himself (see Judges 18:30), we see a tale of deception, thievery, betrayal, and oppression that results in the setting up of an idol in the tribe of Dan, which would continue as long as Israel remained in the land, until the days of her captivity. Thus, before the history of Israel begins, we are told that she will never be freed from her idolatry until she has been driven from the land. From the very outset, therefore, is the necessity made clear for a priest to arise from Bethlehem a second time, to bring the true image of God to the people, instead of a worthless and idolatrous ephod. The first Micah looks to Bethlehem for an image of God and finds only corruption and idolatry – but wait! Is there not a second Micah, who will look once again to Bethlehem for a true priest and the true image of God? Listen to what this second Micah says, after the first Micah’s idolatry has led to the captivity of the first Israel: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace” (Micah 5:2-5, ESV).
But as shockingly depraved as the first episode of Micah and the ephod may be, the second episode of the Levite and his concubine is even worse. There it is again, Bethlehem, from which the King should come and save his people. And there, another Levite, who ought to be a priest of the true and living God – but instead of a priest-king from Bethlehem, who should also be the prophet like Moses, and glorify his bride in the midst of a fruitful land, we see only horror and depravity. This man goes after his unfaithful bride, as the Christ would one day come to do; but unlike the later Hosea, who as a fitter type of Christ and his Church shows what it means for a husband to forgive and restore his faithless wife, this Levite fails entirely. Let us look at how it transpires.
First, the man goes to the house of the bride’s father, to take her back; but when he had already remained for three days and by his own confession should have returned, he was put upon to stay for another day and another, and finally left right before nightfall on the fifth day; and this inauspicious time of departure was the first of those circumstances which would eventuate in the tragedy to come. There was needed, therefore, a different husband who could go to bring back his bride in three days’ time and who really would return from his voyage of salvation after three days and three nights, as this Levite had intended to do; but God had not yet provided such an Husband.
Then, this man intended to go to Jerusalem, which would later come to be the city of the great King, where the Lord would dwell; but it was still the habitation of the Jebusites, so he passed on and came instead to Gibeah, where the Israelites lived. If he had only stayed in that city of strangers, perhaps things would have transpired differently; but among the Israelites, he met such a proof of depravity as had only been seen once before, in the notorious city of Sodom, upon which God’s wrath rained down in all its fire. When a better Husband came to deliver his faithless Bride, would he not bring her to the true Jerusalem, and find in that Jerusalem a true people of God, even among those who had once been strangers and aliens, as these Jebusites were (see Galatians 4:25-28)?
Then, the horrifying denouement to the story took place; the Levite divided his ravaged, murdered concubine into twelve pieces, and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel, as if to say, “The whole nation shares in this bloodguilt”. And in consequence thereof, an entire tribe was almost annihilated, and it was only by further trickery and kidnapping that Benjamin was preserved in the land at all. This Benjamin, of course, became the first tribe from which a king would arise, even Saul, who would see the same city of Jabesh-Gilead in distress, which the eleven tribes here devoted to utter destruction; and he would cut into twelve pieces, not a woman, but rather a yoke of oxen, and send them to all the tribes of Israel, in order to save the distraught city (1 Samuel 11:1-11). But you know what happened to Saul, how God took away his Spirit from him; and so his downfall was great, and Israel was smitten before the Philistines at the end of his life. So the book of Judges ends with a foreshadowing of another failure: not only would there be idolatry in the land until her captivity; not only would she become as depraved as Sodom; not only would she stand in danger of complete annihilation; but furthermore, when a king finally did arise, he would be of the same spirit as that wicked land, and would act in the same way, hacking apart slain bodies and sending them throughout the land; and in the same way, too, would he be defeated. Oh, for a king of a different nature to arise, who would not hack apart his bride, but who would give his own body to be torn for her salvation! Oh, for a David to replace the foreshadowed Saul! But there is no hint of his coming. The book ends with the verdict, “No king,” and with a presage of a king after the people’s own heart, and not after God’s. That is all. The scroll is rolled up and all is dark.
But don’t stop reading at the end of the Judges! Because next comes Ruth, and from Ruth comes David, and from David arises a Branch who will sit upon his throne and rule his people forever, upon whose shoulders will be the government of the people, and of whose kingdom and increase will be no end (Isaiah 9:6-7). The first Israel would fail; that tragic truth is made plain from the beginning. But a second Israel will arise and conquer, and in Him will all the nations of the world be blessed, both Jew and Gentile alike. And what can we say to these things but join the blessed apostle in exulting in the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and untraceable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his counselor? Or who has first given to him, and it shall be returned to him? For of him and through him and to him are all things; to him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).