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Kathleen Nielson delivered a breakout message at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference titled “Judging Deborah: Letting the Narrative and Poetry Speak.” In her message, she laid out six basic questions to ask when studying Old Testament narrative, using Judges 4–5 as an example text. Since narrative and poetic texts can be easily misunderstood, we should relish Deborah’s story and allow her to speak from the text. Nielson pointed out that, like all other Scripture, the story is meant to point others to the greatness of the Lord, through both Deborah’s story and also her song. The six questions offer a framework for understanding a narrative text and mining it for every ounce of God-glorifying truth that may be uncovered.
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Kathleen Nielson: It is a delight to spend the session digging into the Old Testament story of Deborah together. At the start, I would like to mention four specific goals for this session. The first one is simply that, to dig into the text as much as we have time for in an hour, which will be only the beginning of digging into the text, but we will begin. And simply to relish together this remarkable story given to us in the book of Judges chapters four and five. The second goal is closely related to the first, and it is to let Deborah speak from the text. I want to be clear that I am not here with a personal goal of making a point with Deborah. She is a figure, you know, that gets used a lot we might say for the sake of various arguments, particularly arguments relating to women’s roles.
So let’s just see where Deborah takes us as we aim as faithfully as possible to let Deborah speak from the text. The third goal, I suppose, is kind of a point I would like to make, but I trust it’s a point that grows from the text. And I would like to set it up in advance because it beautifully relates to the evangelistically oriented theme of this conference. The third goal then is to hear Deborah’s heart for letting others hear about the greatness of the Lord. Especially in Deborah’s song in chapter five, we hear her heart declare the greatness of our saving God. We need to give attention to that poem as an integral part of the story. Too often we spend so much time in the prose narrative chapter that we don’t really pay too much attention to the song, and it can feel sort of like extra decoration.
But of course, it’s not. The poem works almost as a kind of personal commentary on the story, maybe even as the very heart of the story directly from Deborah herself. And then fourth, I will aim for us to lay out and review some basic questions to ask of Old Testament narrative. Many of you here, I spend a lot of time in women’s Bible studies and Bible study groups. And I’m sure that many of you here, I’m thinking particularly of you women as I speak, but you will at some point be leading or teaching others in Bible study whether formally or informally. And of course in that process, we desire not only to share our insights from the text but also to help others learn to handle the text themselves. A simple progression of questions like the ones we will use here can be helpful not only in our own study but also in showing others a fruitful pathway into these Old Testament stories.
Now, sometimes we may actually teach steps of study like these, and other times steps like these may simply be implicit in the kinds of questions we ask and in the way we guide others to handle God’s word. And so this fourth goal has kind of a teaching aspect to it. I’m not specifically expounding or formally teaching this passage here, but these are steps of study that might be helpful in our teaching. So here then are our four specific goals to dig into the text, to let Deborah speak from the text, to hear Deborah’s heart for letting others hear about the greatness of the Lord, and to lay out and review some basic questions to ask of Old Testament narrative. I suppose if there were an overarching goal that encompasses all these specific ones, it would simply be for us to hear God’s voice more and more clearly in his word all for the glory of Christ our savior.
We won’t start with what seems to be the main idea of this text, we are going to work through the process of listening to it, and then we will draw some conclusions at the end. And I hope there will be time for questions, I’m also happy to stick around and talk almost as long as you want to, as long as you want to, let’s say. I will suggest six very basic questions to ask in the process of reading a narrative text like this one. These are not the only questions, there are plenty of others. This is a start. These questions mark one fruitful route into Old Testament narrative. One quick comment about narrative, which of course means story. When we say narrative or story, some people get nervous. Have you found that? Because those terms make them think of fiction, that is stories that are not true.
Well, of course the Bible stories are true stories, true history, how wonderful and how important to say that. God gives us these historical narratives in the Old Testament in order to speak into our minds and hearts through this powerful vehicle of historical truth shaped by a narrator. Of course, Deborah’s whole story comes to us not only in this narrative but also in the song. So chapter four is the narrative that unfolds the events, and chapter five is a song about the events and they must go together.
So here we go. Question number one, what do I observe? I know I did not need to include that first question, and yet maybe I did. This question just means that we need to read the text and reread it and read it again in order to make the kinds of initial observations that require us to wait and to be quiet and prayerful before a text. Surely I am not the only one here who needs regularly this reminder not to jump too quickly into organizing a text, maybe outlining it, maybe constructing a devotional or an argument from it, et cetera. We are so quick to want to do something with the text as opposed to first receiving it, listening, and observing. In his book Between Two Worlds, John Stott wrote about this process of prayerful observation of a text of scripture as a kind of patient waiting before the word of God. He wrote, we have to be ready to pray and think ourselves deep into the text, even under it. And so we give up all pretensions of being its master or manipulator and become instead its humble and obedient servant. I love that.
So we don’t have time here to belabor this step or even to read the whole two chapters out loud, we will read sections as we proceed. But the point is to start in our study by reading and observing the texts, asking the God who breathed out these words for help in understanding them. Perhaps because Deborah’s story is one we might be inclined to seize and use to support one point or another, this first question might be an especially appropriate reminder kind of like a stop look and listen sign that says, wait, before you try to do anything with these words, just take them in. When we start to read and observe the story of Deborah as is true in most Old Testament narratives, we might notice as much what is not told as what is told. For one thing, we would love to know more about Deborah, wouldn’t you?
She’s introduced so briefly. Verses four and five, now, Deborah a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth 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. So how old is she? What does she look like? How did she come to be judged in Israel? Who’s her husband? Who’s Mrs. Deborah, Mr. Deborah? And what does he do? Do they have children? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This spare narration is not like our modern novels even like our Facebook pages, they give all sorts of details about who we are and how we’re feeling about things moment by moment. It’s just so far from that. Old Testament narrative is really stingy with character development, it basically gives us what we need to know for the purposes of the story, and we’ll see that.
But let’s move to question number two, what’s the context? We actually are given the story’s immediate context in the first three verses of the chapter, which are kind of a front piece that sets up the context of Deborah’s story for us. So verses one to three, 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 Haggoyim. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help for he Sisera had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for 20 years. So we see we’re with the people of Israel in the promised land of Canaan, but they are having trouble. They are not obeying the Lord God who made them a great people, brought them out of slavery in Egypt, gave them his law at Mount Sinai and settled them in this land.
And here in the land of promise, what have they done? They’ve turned away from their God. Not only are they doing evil, but that first sentence of Judges four says they again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after he Ehud died. Now, do you remember Ehud? Ehud was a deliverer described in Judges chapter three. God had raised up Ehud to save the Israelites who were suffering under another cruel king also because they had done evil in the sight of the Lord. But when they cried out to God for help, God heard and rescued them through Ehud. Ehud was that left-handed guy, remember, who stuck his two-edged sword into the fat belly of King Eglon and the fat, you remember, closed around the handle. My boys used to love to read that story when they were little.
A few weeks ago, I got in a car with a driver that I had booked to take me to the airport to travel somewhere for a speaking engagement. And the driver asked me where I was going and what I was doing. And when I told him that I teach the Bible to women, he seemed sort of surprised, kind of amazed. He said that he had just bought a Bible and started to read it. And from the very beginning, he said, “I’m starting at the beginning.” And he looked at me and he said, “You would not believe some of the stuff that’s in there.”
Well, the details of the stories in Judges are all different and some of them we can hardly believe. But the contours of the stories are all the same, the people disobey, God gives them into the hand of their enemy. They cry out for help, God raises up a deliverer. But then they again do evil in the sight of the Lord. And that’s where we are at the start of chapter four. Again, even just this far into the book, we’re struck with a persistence of sin, the depth of the sin that just won’t be rooted out, the monotony of sin that keeps repeating itself over and over. And as we keep on reading the book, you know the increasing ugliness and perversion of the sin, which spirals down and down, it gets worse and worse. And yet we’re struck the same time by the amazing mercy of God who keeps sending deliverers to rescue these sinful people.
Now, we’re looking at context and we need even broader context here. Looking farther back in the Old Testament, we remember that this people is the seed of Abraham with whom God covenanted, he promised to bless them, to make them into a great nation, to give them this land, and through them to bless all the nations of the world. These are God’s people and God is faithful to his promises. Before we’re done, we will need to look not just backward to the larger context, but forward as well to God’s ultimate blessing through his ultimate deliverer, we will get there. But these introductory verses of Judges four let us know that this story has a context bigger than just the people in it, it is about what God is doing we see in these verses. God is the main character and actor in these verses that come even before we meet Deborah. His people have done evil in his sight, he has sold them into the hand of Jabin.
And it is the Lord to whom the people cry out for help, this is all about God. This is a crucial context. And in this context, Deborah comes on the scene. So question number three, what’s the character configuration? It’s a little bit of an awkward wording or way to ask that question, but the question needs to be more than just who were the characters because we need to see how they are presented in relation to one another and to God, which characters stand out, which develop and so forth? So we ask about their configuration. In the narrative of Esther, for example, you have that opposite rising and falling of the various characters crisscrossing right in the center of the plot. Do you remember on that night when the king can’t sleep?
Well, here in Deborah’s story, we’ve already started talking about the characters. These questions do overlap, and that is a good thing. Having seen the context of God’s people in God’s eyes under God’s judgment, then we understand that we will see the characters in this story in relation to the God who is directing this story. And that is the main thing we notice about the main human character, Deborah. She serves God by faithfully declaring God’s word, that’s what she’s all about. Let’s just talk a bit more about this character Deborah, she is a prophetess. Various translations call her either a prophet or a prophetess, that is, she is a woman who brought God’s word to the people God indicated. Deborah was not unique in this role as a woman, other women exercised prophetic gifts in the Old Testament times, Miriam, Moses’s sister was another leader and prophetess, also one who sang a song.
King Josiah of Judah remember sent Hilkiah the priest to inquire of Huldah the prophetess. The prophet Isaiah’s wife is called a prophetess. Now, to be a spokesperson for God does not automatically infer godliness, God did speak through a donkey. In Deborah’s case though, we see her speaking God’s words with evident faithfulness. And we’ll see that faithfulness confirmed in the song of chapter five, that the Holy spirit inspired her to write, perhaps with Barak, perhaps alone. We’ll talk about that. Deborah sings this song that overflows with heartfelt praise to the Lord, a song that becomes a part of God’s inspired scriptures. We’ll get to the song. But even throughout the details of the narrative in chapter four, we see that Deborah evidences constant awareness of God. Her words are full of God and his words. When I came back to this story recently, I had been thinking so much about Deborah that I realized I had actually kind of forgotten how relentlessly about God this story is.
Deborah sends for Barak in order to give him not her command but God’s command. “The Lord,” she says, “the Lord, the God of Israel commands you.” She’s not the commander, she’s the one who communicates God’s message. That’s what prophets did. There in verse six, Deborah gives God’s command to gather the men at Mount Tabor ready for battle. And then at verse seven, she gives God’s promise. These are God’s words in verse seven, I will draw out Sisera the general Jabin’s army to meet you by the River Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hands. So she is giving the very words of the Lord to Barak. Among the people who were not listening to the Lord, Deborah must have stood out dramatically. She certainly stands out in scripture as the only woman who judged Israel, all the judges surrounding Deborah in this book are men.
But the beauty of Deborah is that she stands out not as a poor fill in, but as arguably the most godly leader in the whole book of Judges, it’s remarkable. She was a woman of the word of God. And this character Deborah relates to all the characters around her according to God’s word, including Barak. The next interchange with Barak is kind of a strange one. After this clear call and promise from God, we’re set up for the called out deliverer’s response. And what does Barak say in verse eight, if you will go with me, I will go. But if you will not go with me, I will not go. That’s kind of a letdown, isn’t it? It’s kind of a sad moment I think. The illustration that comes to my mind is that of my little granddaughter who wouldn’t go into the first year classroom without her mother right there holding her hand.
Barak is afraid. It’s not wrong to be afraid, but in his fear he does not trust the word from God that has been given to him. He sees only the woman who has spoken that word. Now, actually Barak is not stupid to desire Deborah’s presence even if he just regards her as good luck. It’s true that she is his connection to the living word of the living God, there’s some logic to it. But Deborah’s response to Barak is even more interesting, does she say, come on Barak, get yourself together? Or does she say, okay, then I’ll do it myself? Which perhaps she could have done brilliantly. No, Deborah does not berate Barak for his lack of faith in God’s word, she’s willing to help him. But she does have a further message for him, verse nine, she tells Barak, 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.
Now, if those had been simply Deborah’s own words in her own wisdom, we might think she’s a little catty or something like that. We might think she is a woman who was gloating a little bit saying, well, if you need a woman to help you, then it’s going to be a woman who gets the prize, so there. Whatever we think about such a judgment from our vantage point now, from the vantage point of that time, this was shameful for Barak. Military leadership belonged to men and this military job should have belonged to him as leader. I was reading over in Judges 9:54. There’s a leader named Abimelech who attacks a tower. And during the attack, a woman, she’s just called a certain woman, we don’t know her name. A certain woman drops a millstone from that tower and cracks a Abimelech’s skull. Immediately Abimelech who’s dying of this crushed skull calls his armor bearer to draw his sword and kill him really fast. Why? Because Abimelech doesn’t want anyone to be able to say that a woman killed him.
But Deborah is not here striking back as a woman on behalf of oppressed women, actually it is God himself who sets up the irony here. It is God who we shall see is sovereignly orchestrating the events that lead to a woman getting the glory. God is turning the tables here, isn’t that lovely? The godly woman, Deborah is simply doing her part to be faithful to God’s word and to encourage those around her to do so as well. The rest of verse 9 and verse 10 emphasize her willing spirit. Then Deborah rose and went with Barak to Kadesh and Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kadesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels and Deborah went up with him. So those verses are kind of encased in, went with him, went with him, kind of sandwiched in her willingness to help.
It’s crucial to see that Deborah is willing to help Barak in his weakness. She respects, she embraces Barak’s role as commander of the army and deliverer of Israel. Think ahead to the New Testament just for a moment. Tn Hebrews 11, the hall of faith, chapter, who is it that gets the shout out along with a few other judges? Barak, it’s not Deborah. Hebrews 11:32, Barak is the one who is listed along with several other judges not Deborah, and a lot of readers ask how is that fair? Well, honestly, I don’t think Deborah would have minded. In fact, that is what Deborah was after, she is calling Barak to take the leadership that God has declared for him. This is a woman who not only delivers God’s word, but acts on it. When Barak refuses to go to battle without her, she agrees with no hesitation. She’s willing to be a helper to him. She is a raiser up of Israel’s leaders.
And if you’re not convinced, just wait, we are going to hear her sing about it. So all the characters are given to us in relation to the God in charge of the story. The story actually balances several characters who are a part of God’s ordering of this story, in order to see the pattern of what God weaves together here. Let’s move to the fourth question, that is what’s the plot? Every narrative you know has what we call a plot, which is simply the shape of the action from beginning to end. Plot shape usually has an introduction on one end and a conclusion on the other. And in the middle, we meet some conflict that rises to a climax and then resolves.
So little Red Riding Hood gets sent off to visit her grandmother, that’s the introduction. She meets the wolf and the wolf eventually eats up both little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, that’s definitely conflict leading to a climax. And a good hunter comes. And depending on your version of the fairytale, cuts open the wolf and out bumps the little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, and they’re fine. That’s the resolution. And the conclusion is she goes back home to her mother having learned a very important lesson. It’s a kind of universal shape to story that we all instinctively recognize. In this story, there’s urgent conflict from the first sentence on God’s people are doing evil, God has given them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan who has this cruel commander, Sisera with his 900 iron chariots.
Well, in a narrative plot, we said conflict usually rises to a climax, which is a high point, a turning point of the story. We’ve watched in verses 4 to 10, the rising action moving toward the climax. Deborah has called Barak out to lead the army, out they go, thousands of men and Deborah. We’re ready for the climactic confrontation, but what happens in verse 11? You see that verse if you’re looking at the text kind of set apart by itself in the flow of the story, it’s a strange verse. It seems like an interruption of simply random information. It’s telling us that this guy named Haber had moved his family up North near Kadesh, near where the troops were gathering. So why does the narrator step in and tell us this at this point? Of course, it only makes sense later after the climax when we meet Jael who is the wife of Haber. Jael is the woman who will get the glory that Barak gave up, we’ll get to that.
But why tell us this here? Why does he interrupt the story here? Well, he evidently wants to draw attention to the sovereign ordering of events as they occur. God is placing everyone according to his plan, according to his word not just Deborah who starts the story, but also this other woman Jael wife of Haber who will bring the story to a close. Well, finally, in the very center of this chapter comes the plot’s climax. I think it comes in verses 12 to 16 with the battle. I think the sharp point of the climax comes with Deborah’s words to Barak. In verse 14, she cries out, “Up for this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand, does not the Lord go out before you?” And again, Deborah is giving God’s word. God’s promise here, the climax of the story is the Lord’s victorious deliverance.
And the narrator makes that abundantly clear in verse 15 when he declares, and the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. So it’s a complete routing. Sisera runs away from the battlefield and the rest of his army is completely destroyed. But wait, how did the Israelites defeat those 900 iron chariots of Sisera? We’ve already read the main answer in 4:15, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army. And that’s really all we need to know, the Lord did it. But the song in chapter five, if we just peek ahead there gives a suggestion of how the Lord sovereignly ordered this defeat in verses 20 and 21 of chapter five describing the battle. It says from heaven, the stars fought. From their course, they fought against Sisera, the torrent Kishon swept them away. The ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon march on my soul with might.
It’s a very live and kind of impressionistic description, but these vivid lines seem to suggest that God directed the forces of nature to participate here in the battle. I love that line, from heaven the stars fought. Remember back in chapter four verse seven, the troops were to meet by the river Kishon. Well, that river Kishon in these verses has turned into a torrent. Sounds like God brought rain that flooded the Kishon river’s banks, probably caused all those heavy iron chariots to get stuck in the mud. This is the conclusion that Dale Ralph Davis comes to. By the way Dale Ralph Davis is an absolutely wonderful help in processing these Old Testament narratives. He has helped so much both in his commentaries on specific books, also in his little book on Old Testament narrative called The Word Became Fresh, isn’t that a great title? The Word Became Fresh, and it’s really fun to read and so insightful on how to deal with these stories.
He enjoys them right in front of us, that’s really his main method and pulls us in with him. Well, the point here is the God of heaven is directing this story, and his word never fails. And so I can say to myself, and you can say to yourself in the words of Deborah’s song that we just read march on my soul with might. But that’s not the end of the story, right? After the climax of a narrative, we say there’s usually some resolution to the stories that moves toward its conclusion. The resolution comes in verses 17 to 22 where we meet Jael the wife of Haber the Kenite, and she indeed is perfectly in place to meet the evil and cowardly Sisera who’s running away from the battlefield.
Sisera thinks that Jael will protect him because of some peace agreement between their respective groups. But we really need to read it starting in verse 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. 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. 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.” But Jael the wife of Haber 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 love that.
And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent and there lay Sisera dead with the tent peg in his temple. Pretty gory, right? Although pretty a matter of factly told. We’ll come back to this. For now, let’s ask what is the overall plot shape of this story? It has this high point at the center where God delivers his people, defeats his enemy. And it has, notice, a strong woman on either side of the climax whom God uses to accomplish his purposes. Deborah, on one side, Jael on the other. There aren’t actually any individual men who are strong in this story. Barak is fearful, he needs Deborah to go with them. Sisera is a coward, and he runs away only to be killed in the tent of Jael.
Now, the outer bookends of this story tell us who is the main focus of the story. Do you remember in verses one to three it was the Lord who sold his people into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan? And in the final verses 23 and 24, look it is God who subdued Jabin the king of Canaan. The Lord God is directing this story. He’s at the center of it and he’s at the beginning, and he’s at the end. He’s directing all the kings of the earth for the sake of his people. Once we’ve worked through these questions so far, we’re ready for the fifth one. What’s the main idea? We can’t do this quickly, and we’ll probably be adjusting our articulation of it every time we come back to the story. But think about what we’ve seen? In every part of the story, we’ve encountered the Lord God who delivers his people and defeats his enemies. The Lord God who delivers his people and defeats his enemies.
Now, we can be pretty sure the main theme is going to be about the fact that God delivers his people, but that is probably not specific enough. The whole book of Judges, and in fact, every chapter might be said to be about how the Lord God delivers his people. To be more specific to Judges four, we might say something like God’s glorious deliverance of his people is revealed through a faithful woman who helped an imperfect deliverer. That’s one theme statement we might work with a little bit, still working with it. Something like God’s glorious deliverance of his people, that has to be in there, is revealed through a faithful woman who helped an imperfect deliverer. But of course, we haven’t finished reading about Deborah. We’ve read the narrative, we haven’t read the song. I would suggest that the song is the thing that really tells us what the story is about.
When Deborah sings, the poetry of her song pierces us with the meaning of the story. Poetry can do that. Think about how the Psalms do that for us. They do not advance the biblical story, do they, the Psalms? They speak into it. They tell us how to think and feel about the story, how to pray and praise and lament as people living in this story. Deborah’s song accomplishes these same things. I’m calling it Deborah’s song although verse one says that Deborah and Barak sang it. But interestingly, the verb there in the Hebrew is feminine singular, as in she sang. This first person reference. And the first person references in the song are clearly Deborah’s. And for example, verse seven, I Deborah arose as a mother in Israel. So who knows, maybe Deborah wrote it and invited Barak to sing it with her. That might likely be the sort of thing she would do.
Listen to the beginning of Deborah song in verses two and three of Judges five. That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, blessed the Lord. Hear O kings and give ear O princes, to the Lord I will sing. I will make melody to the Lord the God of Israel. Deborah’s song celebrates God’s glorious deliverance from their enemy. She’s calling all around, even all the kings and nations around to hear how great is the Lord the God of Israel. But her song does have this added emphasis, doesn’t it? Her song proclaims that it is good to offer oneself in the service of such a God. More specifically, she’s singing about the leaders and military commanders of Israel who willingly came out to join the battle against God’s enemies. Later on in the song, she names the tribes who did come out, and she names the ones who did not.
She calls out the unwilling ones, asking why they stayed behind, why they failed to join the battle. Deborah’s song encourages the leaders of Israel to come out and lead in God’s glorious deliverance of his people. God uses her to show his deliverance even through very imperfect deliverers. Now, of course, we know that all these stories of Judges point to a greater deliverer, the perfect deliverer to come, Even through all the imperfect deliverers in this book, we see God’s faithfulness to save his people according to his covenant promises. We know that God did finally fully keep his promise to deliver his sinful people through the perfect deliverer who came in the fullness of time. Jesus, the son of God delivered us. He rescued us from all our enemies forever. Think about the whole Bible’s plot line, the conflict of sin rises and rises, and the climax comes where? At the cross.
The cross was the decisive battle. The people in Deborah’s time looked forward to it, we look back. Jesus died and he rose from the dead thereby conquering Satan and sin and death once for all. Jesus is the deliverer that the book of Judges foreshadows, makes us long for as we read. And now we are living in the time of redemptive history that is the resolution of that climax as all the nations come streaming to this deliverer. Well, we need to move to the sixth and final question, what’s the application? What will we take away from the story of Deborah? Let’s use Deborah’s song again to guide us in thinking about this story and what we can in effect sing to ourselves and others as we ponder it. The story of Deborah calls us to go away singing at least two things about God and two things about ourselves.
The story of Deborah calls us to go away singing, we’re going to go out of here singing to supper tonight. Singing at least two things about God and two things about ourselves. So the first thing about God is that he rescues his people. Deborah is singing about his deliverance and calling us to join her. Listen to her beautiful call and Judges 5:10 and 11. And notice that she warns rich, comfortable people not to ride on by without stopping to notice and join the song. Tell of it you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk along the way to the sound of musicians at the watering places. There they repeat the righteous triumphs of the Lord, the righteous triumphs of his villagers in Israel. Deborah wants us to stop and hear the song of the Lord’s righteous triumphs, and she wants us to join and to pass on the song. The musicians are repeating it, that’s what songs do.
And this song, verse 11 is repeating the righteous triumphs of the Lord. It’s a song of God rescuing sinful people. Deborah brings in imagery that recalls God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt and his covenant with them at Mount Sinai where in verse five she says the mountains quaked before the Lord, even Sinai before the Lord~ the God of Israel. But Deborah is singing about how the same God keeps on faithfully delivering the people he has called his own. The song indeed points forward to the perfect deliverer Jesus Christ the Lord. And that’s why we can keep on singing it today. It’s here in scripture for us to sing. The song teaches us to relish and to proclaim every detail of God’s merciful rescue of us his people. So that’s the first thing we must sing about God, he rescues his people, he redeems us from the enemy.
But there’s a second thing about God that Deborah sings about in a good bit of detail. It’s a hard thing, but we must sing about it because it’s part of the song. And not only does God rescue his people, but second, he destroys his enemies. We heard Deborah’s description of the river turning into a torrent that swept the enemy away. We heard the narrator’s rather graphic, but matter of fact, description of Jael killing Sisera by driving the tent peg into his temple with a hammer, but not until we’ve heard Deborah sing it. Have we actually understood the way this defeat of their enemies was celebrated by the people who had been in such cruel bondage under them? This violence is hard for many of us today to understand how is it that Deborah can call Jael in verse 24 most blessed of women?
Perhaps it helps a little to think about the nature of the enemy, and we get just a glimpse of their evil at the end of the song when there’s this strange moment when Deborah is imagining Sisera’s mother watching out the window for him to come home from battle. And she’s watching and waiting and he doesn’t come and he doesn’t come. Her attending princesses tell her not to worry, he’ll be becoming. Sisera is probably busy dividing the spoils of war with his men. The wording there suggests not only that Sisera and his men will bring back some really nice clothes from off the bodies of the Israelite women, but also that part of the spoil will be the women’s very bodies as they are raped by the men. Verse 30, have they not found and divided the spoil, a womb or two for every man?
In the end, God subdues these enemies, and the song does relish the victory. Listen to Deborah’s play by play retelling in her song. This is not matter of fact, this is dramatic and juicy. Most blessed of women be Jael the wife of Haber the Kenite. Tent dwelling women most blessed. He asked for water and she gave him milk. She brought him curds in a noble’s bowl. She sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workman’s mallet. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head. She shattered him, pierced his temple. Between her feet, he sank, he fell, he lay still. Between her feet, he sank, he fell. Where he sank, there he fell dead.
Nobody who reads Judges is going to forget the same. Jael wields the hammer and Deborah wields the words. The battering of these quick, repetitive phrases kind of lets us feel the hammer’s blows. I know this sounds violent to us. I know too that most of us find a sort of pleasure in Jael’s facility with hammer and tent pegs. These tools of the women’s work of setting up the tents. The point is that Jael was part of God’s ordained deliverance of his people, which had to involve the putting down of his enemies. In the final lines of her song. Deborah sings this, it’s verse 31, “So may all your enemies perish, O Lord. But your friends be like the son as he rises in his might.”
Those final parallel lines of poetry give the two sides of both deliverance and judgment. And Deborah’s inspired prayers that all God’s enemies will so perish. The song looks out over human history and sees a God who will indeed ultimately put down all of his enemies. They’ve been conquered at the cross. But the final judgment, the conclusion is still to come, the final judgment of a Holy God on those who have not believed in him is a hard and a grievous truth. But one taught throughout the scriptures and one we must not leave out in our sharing the good news with others because it makes the good news stunningly good news. News that we have been delivered from the wrath of God through the salvation accomplished in his son.”
The plot shape we’ve seen indeed reflects the plot shape of the whole Bible. God’s revelation of the shape of human history has that beautiful introduction in Eden, conflict introduced in the fall, a climax of salvation at the cross and the empty tomb. The outworking of that climax in the global spreading of the salvation. And the coming final conclusion when Christ returns to judge all and to reign forever with his people. Even in this Old Testament story, we must confront this Holy God who judges sin just as we celebrate his mercy and rescuing us from it. Deborah’s song does not leave out any part of the story, she wants us to stop and listen to the whole thing as she sings the truths of God.
So those are the two truths about God that we take away and sing, what of the truths about us? First in relation to all of us, this story shows us our desperate need for God’s word in the midst of a world corrupted by sin. The time of the Judges in Israel was such a dark time, the people called by God were constantly turning away from him to do evil in his sight. And yet in the midst of that came God’s word through, in this story, through the mouth of a woman faithful to speak it and a man who listened. Now, Deborah was a prophetess in the days when the written word was not complete. And as Hebrews says in those days at many times, and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets. But in these last days, what does that verse say? God has spoken to us by his son.
We have his completed word now through which the son shines from beginning to end. Oh how we need that word to live forever and to know how to live now on the way to forever. May we believers be known as those who love the scriptures and who love and follow the Redeemer they reveal. May we study the word, share it boldly, sing it loud. And may we be ones who do not stay home but do go out to battle. Not with real swords, but with the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. This word is what we have to sing. Second, I think there is an application in this story for women and for men specifically.
For women, the application would be to share Deborah’s heart for the princes of Israel as she puts it. I love using her own words to make this application. In her song, Deborah calls herself a mother in Israel, a mother she says, it’s verses seven and eight, nine, a mother whose heart goes out to the commanders of Israel. She had a heart for the princes of Israel. Deborah was willing to urge Israel’s leaders on even when they failed. She aimed to strengthen them with her encouragement and her help to spur them on with God’s word. This is a powerful example of a strong, godly woman whose heart yearned to lift up the leaders of Israel. I don’t think we need too much direction in applying Deborah’s example. If we as women truly believe that the Bible teaches the leadership of godly men in marriage and in the church, then we should have this kind of heart to lift up the leaders around us in every way possible through prayer, through encouragement, yes, through honest confronting of sin and through all kinds of support and co-laboring as Paul says, co-laboring in the gospel.
Ministry among women isn’t all about women, it’s also about women encouraging and helping those around us who are called by God to lead in various ways all for the glory of Christ. As for the men, well, let’s just say that Judges was a bleak time as far as leadership of godly men in Israel. May we all pray for our time in the history of the church that God would continue to raise up men who are prepared to lead, ready to go out to battle in all kinds of godly ways for the glory of Christ and the good of his church. It’s an amazing narrative this story of Deborah. These Old Testament narratives are rich, and we mind their riches when we come to them humbly asking questions of the text that allow us to receive the meaning that is there. Not perfectly of course, but better and better as we wait humbly by God’s word and pray and study and talk about it together and then sing its truths so those who need to hear can hear.
These are such simple questions. What do I observe? What’s the context? What’s the character configuration? What’s the plot? What’s the main idea? What’s the application? They are simple questions, but they help us begin to receive narratives as narratives breathed out in this shape and form surely according to God’s sovereign good purposes as these human writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit to write these words in this way. As we even just begin to dig in, we find in these stories, amazing connections, both to stories of our own lives and to the overarching story of the scriptures centered in Jesus the great and final deliverer of his people. Let’s pray, O Lord, teach us to sing, we pray how. Teach us to sing rightly and clearly according to your word. To you, Lord, we will sing. We will make melody to the Lord the God of Israel. As we sing by your grace, may the number of your people grow, may many join the song, may your friends Lord be like the sun as it rises in all its glory. For Christ’s glory, we pray. Amen.