Following Marching Orders

As I study the book of Judges, I see time and time again how God uses people who are seemingly insignificant to bring about mighty triumphs for His chosen people. Whether it was the left-handed man, Ehud; Shamgar and his seemingly insignificant weapon, the ox goad; Gideon who threshed wheat in hiding until declared a “man of valor” by God Himself; or even Jephthah, the son of a harlot, our Father had a habit of choosing unlikely heroes to deliver Israel from bondage.

Of the twelve men and one woman chosen to be the judges of Israel, only two worked as a “spiritual tag team”–Deborah and Barak. Naturally, whenever I see a break in a pattern, I assume that the divergence holds some special significance and merits further study, especially since one of them is the only female judge in the book.

As I read, I noticed quite a few references to trees and other forms of plant life in this book so far, and I’m sure each will reveal a new truth to me in time if I read with a careful eye.  For example, Deborah, as the author of Judges states, sits “under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim. And the children of Israel came up to her for judgement” (Judges 4:5). According to my research, the palm tree (or the palm branch) is used as a symbol of victory. Hence, palm branches were placed before Jesus on His entrance into Jerusalem, and they often decorate the tombs of martyrs and other who experienced a triumph of the spirit over the flesh. Deborah, therefore, is well-placed under a tree of victory, and her people seek her out for council and judgement.

However, it is she who calls for Barak to come to her, bringing him up from Kedesh in Naphtali. She tells him, “Has not the Lord God of Isreal commanded, ‘Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naphtali and of the sons of Zebulun; and against you I will deploy Sisera, the commander of Jabins’s army, with his chariots and his multitude at the River Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hand’?” (Judges 4:6-7).

I find it interesting that, unlike the others who sought her out, Barak was called by Deborah but even more so that her words to him are so specific. She does not reveal anything to him; she does not tell him, “God told me to tell you….” Instead, she says, “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded….” She is asking a rhetorical question. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that God had already given Barak his marching orders, so to speak, but that Barak had done nothing with them since he heard them. It took Deborah repeating the missive for him to act.

God also told both judges specifics including the force to be met, the place of the intended battle, and even the inevitable victorious outcome! That, too, is also insufficient for Barak. He asks Deborah to accompany him to the battlefield, saying, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” (Judges 4:8). Even after an order from God, one filled with specifics and predicting triumph, and a recapitulation of that order from the mouth of the prophetess Deborah, Barak still has neither the will nor the faith to ride up to Mount Tabor.

Even while they are there, Deborah has to crack the whip. She tells Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the Lord gone out before you?” (Judges 4:14). Once again, using a rhetorical question, she scolds him into action. I noticed that Deborah uses the present perfect tense verb phrase “the Lord has delivered.” For those of you who aren’t grammar nerds like I am, here’s what makes that choice so interesting. Present perfect tense describes an action that happened at an indefinite time in the past or that began in the past and continues in the present as in “Nobody has climbed that mountain.” In essence, the victory had already been won; the Lord had already made it happen. It doesn’t read “The Lord will deliver” or “The Lord might deliver if…”

There is no Heisenberg uncertainty principle here. There are no unknown variables or x-factors. Barak is not dealing with physics after all, but rather with the God who is beyond even the metaphysical, He who called all things physical into being. There should be no doubt or indecision, yet in the man chosen to lead Israel into battle, doubt still exists.

The truth of the matter is that the Lord needed neither Deborah nor Barak to carry the day against the Canaanite army; thus, the passage from Judges reads, “And the Lord routed Sistera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak” (4:15). Barak was merely an agent used by God to carry out His good purpose. In fact, even his name lends symbolic significance to this fact. Barak means “lightning” or “thunderbolt,” and if one reads the Song of Deborah and Barak that follows the detailed summary of the battle, one can see exactly how God uses ten thousand foot soldiers against a superior force of nine hundred iron chariots, the old testament equivalent of a brigade of tanks. The song contains the revelation that, “…The earth trembled and the heavens poured, the clouds also poured water; the mountains gushed before the Lord, this Sinai, before the Lord God of Israel” (Judges 6:4). In essence, God sent forth a deluge from the heavens,  capturing the heavy wheeled chariots of His enemies in the mire, leaving them useless. A man whose name means “lightning” and a storm called from the heavens are all God needed to defeat the seemingly insurmountable foe and bring glory to His mighty name.

So what does this mean for a Christian? After all, this is material from the Old Testament relating the history of the Jewish people lost in their repeated disobedience, captivity, and defeat. However, I think the same lesson God meant for Barak is also pertinent to us, too. It is a fine thing to say we trust in God’s providence and goodness, but to actually lean on it in times of difficulty, especially when odds seem overwhelming, is another matter entirely. Absolute trust brings more complete victories, ones both physical and spiritual. God begins to bless each of us to an even greater extent when we are faithful rather than doubtful. Our faith is built and girded up in this way, making us mightier warriors in His service.  

For example, because he does eventually carry out the required action, Barak and his army are victorious, but not entirely. He is not permitted to kill the enemy commander and gain the glory that comes from it. It is as Deborah promised him before they left for Mount Tabor,  “…there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). The honor is given instead to Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Unlike her husband who had broken faith with Israel, she remained obedient and true to her people. As a result, when Sisera comes to hide in her tent, she carries out an act of swift justice, driving a tent stake through his head and killing him instantly. She, another humble instrument, attains the final victory because she was willing both to listen to God and to act on His instructions without hesitation. As a result, her name and Deborah’s are the two we remember while Barak’s is often hazy. 

Like them, our joys and triumphs can only be truly complete and our service to God satisfactory when what is required of us is carried out in obedience and trusting faith.

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