Welcome to the Judges, Part 3: Listen Up, Boys and Girls–A Call to Lead (Judges 4-5)

April 22, 2021, Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville AL, James Jackson, Lead Pastor

Good morning. Please turn in your Bibles to Judges 4.

I have a friend from my high school youth group named Melissa. She’s brilliant—got her doctorate in English literature, has been a high school English teacher, is a published poet, and is just a really fun person to know.

Anyway, I saw a post from her on Facebook a few weeks ago that showed a picture of a book called “Great Women of the Christian Faith,” which was first published in 1959. Melissa had been flipping through this book, which is filled with the biographies of Christian women from the second century all the way up to the twentieth century. It’s got Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, Teresea of Avila, Martin Luther’s Wife, Lottie Moon—its really a cool collection.

But then Melissa got to this page [transition], which says, “Material on pages 198-203 deleted, since personality not suitable for this compilation.

And my friend Melissa was like, “Wow! What kind of scandal did there have to be for a woman to be deleted from an anthology of “Great Women of the Christian Faith?” Did she show too much ankle while she was campaigning for women to be allowed to vote? Did she argue for drums in the worship service? Did she PLAY drums in the worship service? What was it about her personality that was deemed unsuitable?

So I got a little obsessed with trying to get to the bottom of this literary mystery. I ordered the book. Then I ordered an earlier edition of the book, thinking that maybe it would have the disputed pages in it. But it turned out to have the same disclaimer. So that’s twenty bucks I’m not gonna get back.

Meanwhile, because Melissa is much smarter than I am, she contacted the publisher to see if she could get any insight into who got edited out. And it turns out that it was Emma Hale Smith, the wife of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. So someone realized pretty early on that the wife of the founder of Mormonism probably didn’t belong in a book about women of the Christian faith.

So, mystery solved. But it made me wonder—how many women, if you are being honest, wonder if your personality isn’t compatible with how most people picture a godly, Christian woman?

Maybe you went to a women’s Bible study somewhere, and you were really pumped about digging deep into God’s Word, and instead the “Bible study” seemed to be mostly about matching window treatments with throw pillows.

Or you’re a leader in the business world, who supervises a lot of people. Or you’re a high ranking officer in the military. But you come to church and you hear verses like “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission, and if she has any questions, she should ask her husband at home” (1 Tim. 2:11). And you’re like “Huh?” God gave me a brain. He gave me leadership skills. Am I just supposed to check them at the door on Sunday mornings?

Or you’re single. Or you don’t have children. Or divorced. And you look at church and all the programming seems to be geared to stay-at-home moms with 2.5 kids who all drive minivans. And you wonder, “Is my personality suited for this compilation?”  

Well, this morning, as we continue our study in the book of Judges, we’re going to look at two women—Deborah and Jael, that honestly might surprise you that they weren’t edited out of the pages of Scripture, because they for sure don’t line up with how we typically think about women of godly character.

And I know we are only a couple of weeks away from Mother’s day, and some of you might have expected me to skip Deborah and just save her story for Mother’s day. But the more I read and studied, the more I realized that there’s as much or not more in Judges 4-5 that’s directed to men as there is toward women. So men, don’t zone out. There is plenty in here for you, too. That’s why I’m calling this sermon, “Listen Up, Boys and Girls. It’s a call to lead.

So allow me to read the full story of Judge Deborah. I’m not going to make you stand up for it, because it’s actually pretty long. This is Judges 4.

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. 

Let me pause here and direct your attention to a few things. First off, you see the cycle repeated here, don’t you? We talked last week about the SWORD cycle—Stability, wickedness, oppression, repentance, deliverance. And you see that here—or at least you see “WORD.” This time the oppressor is Jabin king of Canaan. He has a general, named Sisera who has 900 iron chariots. Chariots were the most advanced war machines of the day. Sisera had them, and Israel didn’t.

Also, we meet Deborah. Deborah is significant for a lot of reasons. First, she’s the only female judge in Judges. Second, she’s the only one who is also described as a prophetess. That doesn’t mean she’s foretelling the future. A prophet in the Old Testament was someone who spoke the words of God to the people. And you will see her doing that in the next verse. Let’s keep reading.

She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Notice that according to verse 7, Deborah directs Barak to assemble his 10,000 men on the slopes of Mt Tabor. Meanwhile, Sisera is going to be at the foot of the mountain with his 900 iron chariots. They’ve assembled “by the river Kishon,” but the language suggests they are actually in the river bed, because it’s the dry season, and this gives them a great, smooth, flat plain to maneuver their chariots.

So Barak is maybe thinking he and his men are cannon fodder for Sisera and his chariots. 10,000 against 900 seems like good odds for Israel, but not when you factor in those iron chariots. And Barak may be a military leader, but he’s not a prophet like Deborah. So he says, look, I’ll go, but I need you to go with me, because I need to know that God is really with us on this.

Barak is usually given a hard time by Bible readers for this. People point to what Deborah says in verse 9:

Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.

And they think that Deborah is saying, “Because of the timid way you are going about this, you aren’t going to get the glory for this victory.”

That’s actually how it reads in the NIV. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I think Barak is acknowledging what Deborah brings to the table here. He knows she is in a position where she is hearing from God. And he’s a man of action. He knows his own limits, and he knows Deborah’s giftedness, and he says, I want you with me.

And one more thing before we move on: If you read verse 9 as Deborah saying, “Well, if you trusted God more, He would make sure you got the glory for this victory, then I challenge you to ask yourself, when in Scripture has God EVER promised that a human being would get the glory for something God does? As you will see, there’s only one who deserves the glory for the victory that’s coming. And it’s not Deborah. It’s not Barak. It’s not even the woman that’s going to kill Sisera.  Let’s keep reading:

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.

Ok, this seems like a random detail just sort of stuck in there, doesn’t it? We’re talking about Deborah and Barak and an imminent battle and the narrator throws in a couple of verses about some guy who couldn’t get along with his neighbors and so he pitched his tent out in the desert. But, as you’ll see in a few minutes, there’s really no such thing as a random detail in Scripture. But let’s keep going.

13 Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot. 

Why did Sisera flee on foot? Flip over to Judges 5 for a minute. Remember, Sisera positioned his chariots in the dry bed of the River Kishon. If this had been the rainy season, he never would have been there in the first place. But Judges 5 kind of takes the same events of Judges 4 and recaps them in poetic form. And Judges 5:4 says,

“Lord, when you went out from Seir,
    when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled
    and the heavens dropped,
    yes, the clouds dropped water.

“Dropped water?” Sisera’s going, hang on a minute. I checked with James Spann before I left the house, and rain was not in the forecast.

And then verse 21:

The torrent Kishon swept them away,
    the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon.

So God works a miracle that turns Sisera’s tactical advantage into a disadvantage. His iron chariots get stuck in the mud, and he has to flee on foot.

17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 

Remember Heber the Kenite? He “just happens” to be out here in the middle of nowhere, precisely in the path that Sisera is fleeing. And Sisera flees here because he knows that the Kenites are on good terms with the Canaanites. What he doesn’t know is that Heber isn’t on good terms with his own family! For all we know, they could have had a falling out because the Kenites were all buddy-buddy with the Canaanites!  

And now we meet Jael, or as I like to call her, Buffy the Canaanite Slayer

18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’” 

Do you see what Jael is doing? Sisera is already exhausted, and Jael gives him warm milk and a blankie. She’s like “There, there. Is the big strong warrior ready for a nap?” She all but sings him a lullaby. Verse 21:

21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 

I’m not sure that last sentence was necessary. And then when Barak comes by, she meets him at the door and says, “I’ll bet you’re looking for Sisera. You are? Nailed it! I had him pegged from the moment he came in here.”

Can I pause here for just a minute, and give another word to all you women who are afraid “your personality isn’t suited for this compilation?” I mean, when you hear guys talking about wanting a wife of Biblical character, usually they are thinking about Proverbs 31, right? You know, the wife who rises while it’s still dark and provides food for her husband (v. 15)? Or “opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue?” (v. 26)

Yes. That’s a wife of Biblical character. But if you ask Lappidoth, Deborah’s husband, he will tell you that a wife of Biblical character is a prophetess who spends all day underneath the palm of Deborah adjudicating the disputes of her fellow Israelites.

If you ask Heber the Kenite, he will tell you that a wife of Biblical character won’t hesitate to drive a tent peg through the skull of any pagan who comes into her tent and threatens her family!

So all you men who are praying for a wife of noble character, just realize that if you can’t handle her Judges 4:21, you don’t deserve her Proverbs 31!

So four truths from the story of Deborah, and Barak, and Jael:

1. Spiritual gifts are not gender specific.  This story, as much as perhaps any in the Bible, gives you a glimpse into the role God has for women in his kingdom. Deborah was a prophet. Not only is she the only female judge in the book of Judges, she is also the only one who is also described as a prophet.  

Now, some people have said that the only reason Deborah was a prophet is because Israel had fallen so far that there weren’t any men around to lead.

But the problem with that interpretation is that the text never says that. That’s called eisegesis, which is reading an interpretation into a text, as opposed to exegesis—drawing an interpretation out of a text. Deborah was an established leader and teacher in Israel. The story says she was in the position she was because she was gifted to do so.

And the truth is that throughout the Bible, both men and women led. Both men and women prophesied. Joel 2:28 says that in the last days, God will pour out His spirit on all flesh. Sons AND daughters will prophesy. Old men AND young men will have visions.

Now it is true that while spiritual gifts are not gender specific, there are a couple of roles in the church that are. In both the Old and New Testaments, God establishes certain positions that he wants only men to play and others he wants only women to play.

In the OT, for example, women could not be priests. Or you see here in this story that Deborah won’t lead the army. That’s why she summons Barak in verse 6 and tells him to rally the troops.

Did you notice that when Deborah is introduced in chapter 4, she is identified as the “wife of Lappidoth.” This is a Hebrew way of indicating that Deborah identifies herself as being part of Lappidoth’s household. Even though she is the most influential woman in Israel at the time, she identifies herself in a home led by her husband, because that is a role God has given him to play.

In the New Testament, Paul says very clearly that women should not serve in the role of pastor-elder at the church (1 Tim 2:12– 3:1). But that doesn’t prohibit them leading in other spheres, or from exercising all the same spiritual gifts that men have, including leadership and teaching—just not in the capacity of pastor-elders.

What about where Paul says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12)?  What does he mean? Well, it can’t mean that women should not speak prophetically, or teach, because we see them doing that all through the NT. In Luke 2:36, Anna is called a prophetess, and in Romans 16:1, Phoebe is described as deaconess. Priscilla in Acts 18:28, it’s Priscilla who takes the lead in explaining “the way of God more adequately” to Apollos.  

So of course women teach and prophesy, we see that in the New Testament.  Just not in the capacity of pastor-elders.

In the church, we talk about egalitarianism and complementarianism. Egalitarianism says that there is no distinction of roles at all. Complementarianism says that men and women are equally gifted, but serve in different roles. And I actually think the story of Deborah and Barak is the best example of this in the entire Bible. Complementarianism does NOT mean that can only serve in some kind of diminutive role because they don’t have the capacity to lead. When Peter talks about women being “the weaker vessel” in 1 Peter 3:7, he is NOT talking about women being weaker intellectually, or spiritually, or emotionally. I really believe that he is ONLY talking about women physically being weaker than men.

The point is, women are equals without being equivalents! The Bible teaches equality of position; equality of gifting; but with distinctive roles to play in family and church. If you are a woman listening to this, I want you to hear three things from me this morning:

  1. God has a calling on your life. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t have baptized you. Yours is not just to simply sit on the sidelines and make coffee. Do you know what that calling is? Have you risen up to obey it? Like Deborah, you need to get into the fight.  
  2. Women can be leaders with spiritual authority. In Deborah, you see a leader of the highest caliber.  
  3. You can lead in the way God has equipped you while still respecting God’s order.  Deborah refuses to take the military leadership God had assigned to Barak. And notice how she is introduced in verse 4: “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth.

You know, I think one of the great unsung heroes of this entire story is Lappidoth. Men: maybe you are married to a Deborah. Don’t resent the gifts God has given her. Recognize her spiritual discernment. Listen to her! And if the Lord has blessed her with teaching gifts, make it your mission to help her be a steward of it.

So that’s the first point. Spritual gifts are not gender specific, but some roles are. Don’t worry, the next three points are not nearly as long.

The next three points come from chapter five, what we call the Song of Deborah, or sometimes the song of Deborah and Barak. And by the way, if you are one of those people who feel like women can never teach you in church, you should go ahead and excuse yourself, because this entire chapter was written by a woman.

The second point is actually the second verse of the song of Deborah:

2. When the leaders lead, the people praise the Lord (5:2)

This is actually exactly what verse 2 says. Deborah sings,

“That the leaders took the lead in Israel,
    that the people offered themselves willingly,
    bless the Lord

Verse 9 says,

My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
    who offered themselves willingly among the people.
    Bless the Lord.

Then, in verse 13, she starts to call out the various tribes and towns that stepped up to fight.

  • Verse 14: From Ephraim they came and marched down into the valley. And Benjamin! And Machir! Zebulun! Verse 18 mentions Zebulun again, so they must have really gone after it.
  • Verse 15:  the princes of Issachar followed Deborah…
  • Verse 18:  Naphtali jumped in to fight.

See, when leaders lead, God wins, and people praise. And I like that verse 15 says the PRINCES of Isaachar came.

I think the NIV is the only one that translates verse 2 as  “when the PRINCES of Israel take the lead. I like that. Since I have spent a lot of time on the 1st point with the women, let me direct this next one specifically toward the men.

Men, it makes a difference when you lead. God, has given you a crucial role to play that can’t be replicated by anyone else and if your family and this church is going to praise the Lord, it is because you step forward to lead.

Every sociological study done points to the fact that the leadership of the father is the greatest determining factor on how the kids turn out. For instance, one study found these stats:

  • If a child is the first to become a believer in Jesus, there is a 3.5% chance the rest of the family will become Christian.
  • If the mother converts first, that number rises to 17%.
  • But if it’s the father first, the percentage raises to 93%!

When the princes lead, the people praise.

But the reverse is true also. And that brings us to the third piercing truth: The great temptation of men is not to do evil, but to do nothing.

Deborah notices that there were a lot of men that just stayed on the sidelines. And she called them out:

  • Verse 15: In the districts of Reuben, there was much searching of heart… And then it says it again in verse 16. Deborah says, “Why did you stay among the sheep pens, Reuben?”

What was Reuben searching his heart about? Maybe it was analysis paralysis. Maybe they were going, “Well, yeah, but Sisera’s got iron chariots. We don’t have a chance.”

Or maybe they were saying, “I’m not going to take orders from a woman. Deborah’s not gonna tell me what to do.”

  • Vs. 17: “Gilead stayed behind in Jordan, and Dan lingered with the ships. Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, staying by his landings.”

This sideline shaming comes to a crescendo in verse 23:

  •  ‘Curse Meroz,’ said the angel of the LORD. ‘Curse its people bitterly, because they did not come to help the LORD, to help the LORD against the mighty.’(5:23)

We have a lot of men who are not bad guys. They are just passive guys. They are doing a cost/benefit analysis, like Reuben. Or they are hanging back by the ships, like Dan. And here’s the hard, cold truth:  God curses spectators. That’s not me being harsh. That’s me reading the Bible.

A few years ago, the International Mission Board noticed something really interesting. They were looking at the applications for missionaries to serve in some of the most dangerous parts of the world: North Africa. The Middle East. South Asia. Places where you can’t even print the name of the missionary; you can only refer to them by their initials, because their lives would be in danger if it was known that they were missionaries.

For the last five years, the number of women applying to serve in those areas has outnumbered men FOUR TO ONE. Not to take anything from those women, but, where are the men?

Sitting on the sidelines not only robs you of reward, it puts you under a curse.  Men: Are you active with your time?  Your talent?

Are you being a steward of your treasures: how much is engaged in the expanse of God’s kingdom?

Don’t tell yourself that you are ok as long as you are not committing crimes. There is more than one way to be wicked: wickedness can come from what you do; but it can also come from what you fail to do. Jesus didn’t say, “Watch me attentively.” He said, “follow me.”

See, there are two things going on in this victory against Sisera and his 900 chariots. First, there is God’s sovereignty.God miraculously sent a torrent of reign to a dry river bed. God miraculously put one Israelite and his Ronda Rousey wife in the middle of the wilderness, right in the flight path of Sisera.

But there is a second part of the equation: God requires our obedience. We see in this story a recurring theme in Judges. God brings down the most powerful tyrants with weak instruments.

In Judges 3 it was a leftie with a concealed weapon. Or it was Shamgar with an oxgoad. In Judges 4, it’s a housewife with a tent peg. A tent peg was a common household item, not a war weapon.

God does his work in the world through our obedience, not our ability. Look how Deborah sings about Jael: (vs. 24) “Most blessed among women be Jael,”

There’s one other woman in Scripture who was greeted with “Blessed are you among women.” You know who it was? Mary, the mother of Jesus! That’s how Elizabeth greeted her in Luke 1:42.

Here you had a virgin who is told she is going to give birth to a Son who will be the Savior of the world. As a virgin, she has no ability to make that happen. What she had was obedience. Mary’s prayer: “Be it unto me according to your word.” That’s a prayer of surrender and faith. “God, I’ll do what you say. I’ll trust you with the results.”

 That is always how God brings about victory. It is His sovereignty plus our obedience.

Are you willing to pray that? Be it unto me… God, I’ll give where you tell me to give. I’ll serve where you tell me to serve. I’ll rest when you tell me to rest. I’ll trust where you tell me to trust.

God’s sovereignty, plus our obedience, equals victory. Let’s pray.

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