Judges 3: Lessons on God’s Mercy and Grace From His First Three Judges or Deliverers

Introduction: This chapter describes the Jews’ descent into sin, their cries for help, and God’s response with His deliverers. These accounts are remarkable for the God-given abilities of the deliverers. They are also remarkable because God sent His deliverers even though the Jews never repented. From these accounts, He reveals seven lessons about His mercy and grace.

First, from God’s promise to use the Canaanites (a symbol of the flesh) to test the hearts of the Jews, He reveals that He will use your flesh to test you as well. Second, from the Jews’ eight-year bondage to the Canaanites after engaging in temple prostitution, intermarrying with their children, and worshiping their gods, He reveals that idolatry leads to bondage. Third, from His elevation of Othniel as Israel’s first deliverer, He reveals that He is filled with both mercy and grace to free you from bondage. Fourth, from the Jews’ eighteen-year bondage to the Moabites following their continued disobedience and idolatry, He reveals that continued sin may lead to progressively more severe discipline. Fifth, from His elevation of Ehud as Israel’s second deliverer, He reveals that He does not want His people to perish or forever remain in bondage. Sixth, from His victory over the Moabites, He reveals that He can empower you to defeat your enemies as well. Finally, from His elevation of Shamgar as Israel’s third deliverer (a poor foreigner), He reveals that He can use ordinary people to deliver others from bondage to sin.

1. God Tests Your Heart to Show You Where it is Evil. Judges 3:1-4.

  • God’s testing of the nation of Israel. After the Jews failed to drive out the Canaanites as He commanded, He tested their hearts to see if they would turn from Him: “1 Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to test Israel by them (that is, all who had not experienced any of the wars of Canaan; 2 only in order that the generations of the sons of Israel might be taught war, those who had not experienced it formerly). 3 These nations are: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for testing Israel, to find out if they would obey the commandments of the Lord, which He had commanded their fathers through Moses.” (Jdgs. 3:1-4). God’s decision not to remove the Canaanites fulfilled a punishment that He had warned of previously: “I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died,” (Jdgs. 2:21). He would use the Canaanites to test the Jews (Jdgs. 2:22; 3:1). As He did in the wilderness, He repeatedly tested the Jews to show them where their hearts were evil: “[F]or God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” (Ex. 20:20(b)). “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers. You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Dt. 8:1-2). His constant testing of the Jews provides lessons for what God does to believers today. He tests the hearts of all believers to keep you from falling into the bondage of sin.

  • God tests us to show us where our hearts are evil. God cannot tempt you (Jam. 1:13-14). He does, however, test you: “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, . . .” (Jer. 17:10; 20:12). “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked . . .” (Ps. 11:5; 66:10). He tests you to show you where your heart is evil (Jer. 17:9). Even though David was an adulterer and a murder, he later showed that he had learned from God’s mercy and grace by inviting Him to search his heart to expose his hidden sins (Ps. 139:23). Even though David committed horrible sins, his openness to learning from his sins is what made him a man after God’s heart (Acts 13:22). Your old sins should not weigh you down. Instead, rejoice that God has given you the chance to learn and change from your prior mistakes: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,” (Jam. 1:2). Are you asking God to show you your hidden sins? If you think that there is no need for Him to test you because you have no sin, He says that His truth is not within you (1 Jo. 1:8).

A faith that is never tested cannot be trusted1

2. Idolatry Leads to Bondage to Sin. Judges 3:5-8.

  • The eight-year bondage of the Jews following their disobedience and idolatry. Because the Jews failed God’s tests and turned to rebellion and idolatry, He removed His hedge of protection and allowed them to become enslaved to their sins: “5 The sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; 6 and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. 7 The sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, so that He sold them into the hands of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia; and the sons of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years.” (Jdgs. 3:5-8). Moses warned that it was forbidden for the Jews to marry the Canaanites because they would corrupt the Jews’ children: “Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.” (Dt. 7:3-4). Just before his death, Joshua also warned the Jews not to intermarry with the Canaanites or adopt their customs: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the LORD your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you; but they will be a snare and a trap to you, and a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good land which the LORD your God has given you.” (Josh. 23:12-13). The Jews, however, did not heed these warnings: “But they mingled with the nations and learned their practices,” (Ps. 106:35). Just as God warned through Moses, the Jews then: “served the Baals and the Asheroth.” (Jdgs. 3:7; 2:11-13; 1 Sam. 12:10; Jer. 23:27). This meant that the Jewish men slept with Canaanite temple prostitutes under the false promise that these alleged “gods” would bring fertility to both the Promised Land and the Jewish families. The name of their oppressor, “Cushan-rishathaim translates as “Cushan of double wickedness.” The Jews received their eight-year punishment for their double wickedness of disobedience and idolatry. In the Bible, the number eight is associated with new beginnings. God delivered the Jews during their eighth year of captivity to give them a new beginning from their cycle of sin, oppression and cries for help.

  • Guard your heart from embracing the idols of the world. Just as the Jews were ordered to guard their children from foreign marriages, believers are also warned to guard their hearts from the evil idols of the world: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23). “Listen, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way.” (Prov. 23:19). When you fail to guard your heart, evil thoughts and then evil actions will become visible in your life: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” (Matt. 15:19; Mk. 7:21). The bondage that comes from failing to heed God’s warnings is sometimes not fully clear until it is too late: “Sin always brings bondage; though it comes to us deceptively. The fish never contemplates the bondage of the hook when it goes after the bait; Satan snares us by making the bait attractive and hiding the hook.” (David Guzik on Judges Chapter 3).2 Are you limiting what you watch or do to guard your heart? Are you closely monitoring your children to also guard their hearts from the bondage of sin?

3. Out of Mercy and Grace, God Seeks to Deliver You From Bondage. Judges 3:9-11.

  • God’s elevation of Othniel as Israel’s first deliverer. Out of mercy and grace, God did not forget His people. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, He raised up Caleb’s nephew Othniel to become Israel’s first deliverer: “9 When the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel. When he went out to war, the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand, so that he prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 Then the land had rest forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died.” (Jdgs. 3:9-11). Caleb previously gave his daughter Achsah to his nephew Othniel after he accepted Caleb’s challenge to capture the Canaanite city of “Kiriath-sepher” (Jdgs. 1:9-13; Josh. 15:13-17). Caleb, along with Joshua, were the only two spies who did not fear the “giants” in the Promised Land (Nu. 13:30). For his faith, God gave him the lands that he walked upon as a special inheritance for his descendants (Josh. 14:6-9). Caleb used his God-given inheritance to inspire others like Othniel to serve God. Even though Othniel was a foreign Kenizzite (Josh. 14:4), God used him and rewarded him for his faith. God gave him a wife, his own special inheritance, and the privilege of becoming Israel’s first deliverer. There are at least three lessons from Caleb and Othniel. First, He is looking for men and women of faith, like Caleb, to inspire others to serve Him. Second, He is also looking for men and women of faith, like Othniel, to accept His calling to deliver others from sin. Third, He can use you regardless of your background if you have faith. Have you accepted God’s calling to help free others trapped in the bondage of sin?

God raised up Othniel to deliver the Jews3

  • God is moved by your cries for help. God not only raised a deliverer, He did so without any sign that the Jews had repented from their rebellion and idolatry. The Hebrew word for “cried” is “za ‘aq”. It “expresses not repentance for sin but the anguish of a person in a distressing situation in need of deliverance. Sometimes it is simply a cry of pain.” (Daniel Block, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Judges, Ruth, Vol. 6, B & H Publishing Group 1999 p. 148). Through His help for the unrepentant nation, He reveals that He is filled with both mercy and grace when a believer cries out for help: “Nevertheless He looked upon their distress when He heard their cry; and He remembered His covenant for their sake, and relented according to the greatness of His lovingkindness.” (Ps. 106:44-45; Ex. 3:7; Jgs 2:18). Out of grace, He gave the Jews 40 years of peace from further conflict (Jdgs. 3:11). In the Bible, the number 40 is also associated with God’s testing. The Jews spent 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness without food. God gave the Jews this 40-year-period of peace to test their hearts to see if they would return to rebellion and idolatry or not. They returned to rebellion. With each deliverance, the Jews drifted further into sin. As a consequence, God’s discipline became more severe. The Jews’ time in captivity frequently increased each time they took their deliverance for granted and returned to their sins. The message for believers is clear. If He has granted you a reprieve from suffering from your prior sins, never squander His mercy and grace.

4. The Failure to Repent May Lead to Progressively Severe Discipline. Judges 3:12-14.

  • The eighteen-year bondage of the Jews following their disobedience and idolatry. After Othniel died, the Jews sadly returned to their wicked ways. They continued to rebel against God because they had not truly repented and changed their ways. To bring the Jews to a place of true repentance, He then allowed for an increased foreign enslavement of 18 years: “12 Now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the Lord. 13 And he gathered to himself the sons of Ammon and Amalek; and he went and defeated Israel, and they possessed the city of the palm trees. 14 The sons of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.” (Jdgs. 3:12-14). Moses warned that violating God’s Covenant would cause the Jews to lose God’s hedge of protection and become defeated in battle: “The LORD shall cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you will go out one way against them, but you will flee seven ways before them, and you will be an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Dt. 28:25). Each time the Jews turned from God, they lost in battle as He promised (e.g., 1 Sam. 4:2, 10; 2 Sam. 18:17; 2 Kgs. 14:12; 2 Chr. 25:22). The number nine in the Bible is associated with the fullness of the Spirit. The number two is a number of confirmation. Together, the number 18 in this context symbolized the confirmation of God’s judgment of sin when a person or a nation refuses to repent. If God has given you a reprieve from the consequences of your sins, have you misused His mercy and grace as a license to sin?

  • A nation that refuses to return to God will also experience His progressive discipline. In the Torah, God outlined 40 progressively more severe “curses” that He would use to bring a rebellious nation back to Him. These included: (1) resistance / opposition (Dt. 28:16); (2) scarcity (Dt. 28:17); (3) infertility (Dt. 28:18); (4) failure (Dt. 28:19); (5) rebuke (Dt. 28:20); (6) hardships (Dt. 28:21); (7) illness (Dt. 28:22); (8) drought (Dt. 28:23-24); (9) defeat (Dt. 28:25); (10) fear (Dt. 28:26-27); (11) disease (Dt. 28:28); (12) confusion (Dt. 28:28-29); (13) stolen spouses (Dt. 28:30(a)); (14) stolen property (Dt. 28:30(b)-31, 33(a)); (15) stolen children (Dt. 28:32); (16) oppression (Dt. 28:33(b)); (17) mental illness (Dt. 28:34); (18) sores and lost beauty (Dt. 28:35); (19) idolatry (Dt. 28:36); (20) being vilified (Dt. 28:37); (21) insect plagues (Dt. 28:38-39); (22) a seared conscience (Dt. 28:40); (23) enslaved youth (the second curse against children) (Dt. 28:41); (24) barren lands (Dt. 28:42); (25) indebtedness (Dt. 28:43-44); (26) destruction (Dt. 28:45-6); (27) captivity (Dt. 28:47(a)); (28) suffering (Dt. 28:47(b)); (29) invasion (Dt. 28:49-50); (30) pillaging (Dt. 28:51); (31) being besieged (Dt. 28:52); (32) self-destruction (Dt. 28:53); (33) husbands turning on their wives (Dt. 28:54-55); (34) wives turning on their husbands (Dt. 28:56-57); (35) unending plagues (Dt. 28:58-59(a)); (36) unending diseases (Dt. 28:59(b)-60); (37) other calamities (Dt. 28:61); (38) population collapse (Dt. 28:62-63); (39) exile (Dt. 28:64); and (40) despair (Dt. 28:65-68). The western world has also enjoyed great prosperity even as it turns from God and embraces practices that God calls evil in the Bible. It should not interpret its prosperity as a blessing. It is instead the calm before the storm of His progressive discipline.

  • God disciplines out of love. God did not discipline the Jews to punish them. Instead, He disciplined them out of love to change their behavior. “For whom the LORD loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6). “Thus you are to know in your heart that the LORD your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son.” (Dt. 8:5). “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” (Rev. 3:19). You are blessed when He disciplines you to transform you: “Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O LORD, and whom You teach out of Your law;” (Ps. 94:12; Job 5:17). “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.” (Ps. 119:17). Do you thank Him for His loving discipline?

5. Out of Mercy and Grace, God Does Not Desire any to Perish. Judges 3:15-26.

  • God’s elevation of Ehud as Israel’s second deliverer. The Jews did not repent during their 18 years of captivity. Nevertheless, God showed mercy and grace to raise up a second deliverer because He did not want His people to perish: “15 But when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for them, Ehud the son of Gera, the Benjamite, a left-handed man. And the sons of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 Ehud made himself a sword which had two edges, a cubit in length, and he bound it on his right thigh under his cloak. 17 He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. 18 It came about when he had finished presenting the tribute, that he sent away the people who had carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back from the idols which were at Gilgal, and said, ‘I have a secret message for you, O king.’ And he said, ‘Keep silence.’ And all who attended him left him. 20 Ehud came to him while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, ‘I have a message from God for you.’ And he arose from his seat. 21 Ehud stretched out his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh and thrust it into his belly. 22 The handle also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the refuse came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the vestibule and shut the doors of the roof chamber behind him, and locked them. 24 When he had gone out, his servants came and looked, and behold, the doors of the roof chamber were locked; and they said, ‘He is only relieving himself in the cool room.’ 25 They waited until they became anxious; but behold, he did not open the doors of the roof chamber. Therefore they took the key and opened them, and behold, their master had fallen to the floor dead. 26 Now Ehud escaped while they were delaying, and he passed by the idols and escaped to Seirah.” (Jdgs. 3:15-26). The Jews sent Ehud to King Eglon under the pretext that he was delivering the Jews’ annual tribute to the Moabites. The fact that he was “left handed” is both a play on words and a testament to his special military training. He came from the tribe of Benjamin (Jdgs. 3:15). First, the name Benjamin means “son of the right hand.” Thus, this suggested that he was different from the people of his tribe. In this context, he was different in the sense that he was set apart for God. Second, in that time period, being left handed also meant that he was specially trained in battle. Some soldiers were specially trained to fight with their left hand by binding up their right hand. “In line combat, trained left-handers have a decided advantage over right-handers who are taught to fight sword against shield.” (Block p. 161). Thus, Ehud was ambidextrous, highly trained, and resourceful. He carefully planned out his attack by concealing a specially created 18” double-edged dagger without a hilt. He placed it on his inner right thigh where he knew the guards would not have likely looked there for a weapon. Today, Christians are not called upon to kill evil leaders. The lesson from Ehud is to develop your God-given “talents” for His use and without fear for your own life. Are you developing your God-given talents to serve Him without fear of what others may say about you? (Matt. 25:14-30; Lk. 19:12-28).

Ehud killed King Eglon of Moab4

  • Evil leaders who are permitted to oppress God’s people will also eventually be judged. Some are troubled by Ehud’s actions. But Ehud must be viewed as the instrument of God’s judgment upon the Moabites. The Moabites were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot (Gen. 19:36-37). God previously prohibited the Jews from encroaching upon Moabite territory because Abraham gave them their lands (Dt. 2:8-9). Yet, after God removed Israel’s hedge of protection in response to their sins, the Moabites invaded and committed their own acts of evil. Although judgment comes first to God’s people, nonbelievers will also eventually face judgment: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17). Ehud was God’s instrument to judge the Moabites: “for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” (Ro. 13:4). Ehud later had a clan named after him (1 Chr. 7:10). Thus, he was considered a hero. The message is that God will judge all evil. Your only escape is to let Christ take your judgment.

6. Out of Grace, God Can Also Give You Victory Over Your Enemies. Judges 3:27-30.

  • God’s victory over the Moabites. Through the example of Ehud, God again showed mercy and grace to the unrepentant Jews by granting them a victory over the Moabites: “27 It came about when he had arrived, that he blew the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was in front of them. 28 He said to them, ‘Pursue them, for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hands.’ So they went down after him and seized the fords of the Jordan opposite Moab, and did not allow anyone to cross. 29 They struck down at that time about ten thousand Moabites, all robust and valiant men; and no one escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel.” (Jdgs. 3:27-30). God not only judged the Moabite king, He also judged all of Moab for its wickedness: “Woe to you, Moab! The people of Chemosh have perished; for your sons have been taken away captive and your daughters into captivity.” (Jer. 48:46). When God stood with the Jews, their enemies could not defeat them in battle. “The Lord shall cause your enemies who rise up against you to be defeated before you; they will come out against you one way and will flee before you seven ways.” (Dt. 28:7; Lev. 26:7-8; Ex. 23:22; Nu 10:9, 35; Isa. 54:17; Gen. 22:17). For those who are obedient and take refuge in Him in the face of the enemy, He promises to be a shield against the enemy’s fiery darts: “He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.” (Prov. 30:5(b); 2 Sam. 22:31). With His help, Jonathon killed 20 enemy soldiers (1 Sam. 14:14). Likewise, it was His blessing that allowed David to kill Goliath (1 Sam. 17:50-58). He also used Gideon’s small army of only 300 soldiers to kill 120,000 enemy Midianites (Jdgs. 7:16-22; 8:10). His protection of the Jews here shows that His protection is never earned. His protection comes through His grace. Are you putting your trust in Him when you face obstacles or enemies in battle?

Ehud blew a trumpet to signal God’s deliverance5

  • Don’t take your deliverance for granted. As He did previously, God gave the Jews peace after His victory. But He then tested the Jews’ hearts with His peace: “And the land was undisturbed for eighty years.” (Jdgs. 3:27-30). The 80 years represented two periods of testing. Although the Jews were no doubt initially thankful, their gratitude cooled over time, and they returned to their wicked ways: “When He killed them [the Jews’ enemies], then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God; and they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer.” (Ps. 78:34-35). But the Jews’ gratitude was not deeply rooted or sincere: “But they deceived Him with their mouth and lied to Him with their tongue. For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.” (Ps. 78:36-37). Do you still thank God for your deliverance as if it just happened? Or, have your passions cooled?

7. God Can Use Any Person of Humble Origins to Deliver Others From Sin. Judges 3:31.

  • God’s elevation of Shamgar as Israel’s third deliverer. Even though the Bible does not record any gratitude or change of heart in the Jews, God showed His ongoing mercy and grace by raising up a third deliver. This time, He used an unknown foreigner named Shamgar to defeat the Philistines: “31 After him came Shamgar the son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad; and he also saved Israel.” (Jdgs. 3:31). The account is remarkable for four reasons. First, God gave this man the superhuman strength to kill 600 Philistines. The number six is the number of mankind. His killing of 600 Philistines represented God’s judgment against that nation. Second, He gave Shamgar this power while using an ordinary farming tool, as opposed to a sword. Shamgar’s “oxgoad” or cattle prod was a long stick with an iron point at the end. It was used to guide or spur livestock, typically oxen, to pull a plough. Third, the name Shamgar is not a Jewish name. His name suggested that God used a lowly foreigner (a “Hurrian”) with no special background to deliver the Jews. We also know that He was a man of humble origins because he lacked the money to buy a normal weapon. He further lacked the reputation to have others follow him. As a foreigner, the Jews most likely did not trust him. By contrast, Ehud was a Benjamite of reputation whom the Jews had chosen to deliver their tribute to the Jews. Othniel was also a foreigner, a Kenizzite. But he was famous because He was Caleb’s nephew. He had also previously proven himself by leading troops in battle against the Canaanites. Finally, unlike Othniel and Ehud, Shamgar is only mentioned twice in the Bible. His only other reference appears in the Song of Debra (Jdgs. 5:6). He represents God’s willingness to use ordinary people to do extraordinary things. He doesn’t care about your background or your prior sins after you repent. If you have repented of your sins, God has forgiven you and forgotten your sins (1 Jo. 1:9; Is. 43:25; Heb. 8:12). You only need faith and a willingness to serve. Do you have any valid excuses for ignoring God’s call to serve Him?

God raised up Shamgar as His third deliverer6