Judges 4: Lessons on Obedience and Faith from Deborah, God’s Deliverer

Introduction: This chapter tells the story of God’s deliverer Deborah. Through the Holy Spirit, He gave her the gift of prophecy to speak His Word of encouragement and instruction to others. Through her, He inspired a reluctant Jewish leader named Barak to lead the Jews into battle against the Canaanites. From this account, He reveals seven lessons on obedience and faith.

First, from the rebellion that followed Ehud’s death (the third rebellion following the death of a godly leader), He reveals that obedience must come from an internal love and devotion. If obedience is externally imposed or done to please others, it will ultimately lead to rebellion. Second, from the Jews’ 20-year enslavement to the Canaanites (the third increasingly severe time of bondage), He reveals that ongoing sin will lead to increasingly severe discipline. Third, through God’s elevation of Deborah to be a deliverer, He reveals that He can use anyone, including you, to free others from bondage. Fourth, from Barak’s refusal to fight for Israel without Deborah at his side, He reveals that true faith requires that you trust Him to fight your battles for you. Fifth, from Deborah’s prophecy that a woman would kill the enemy general Sisera, He reveals that He uses the humble and the meek as His servants on Earth. Sixth, from God’s defeat of Sisera’s army, He reveals that He is sovereign over all and will defeat your spiritual enemy in your life when you walk in faith and obedience. Finally, from Jael the Kenite’s slaying of general Sisera, He reveals that no evil will escape His judgment. None are righteous in His eyes. Only if you let Jesus take your punishment can you escape the same fate.

1. Obedience that Does Not Come From Within Leads to Rebellion. Judges 4:1.

  • Israel’s rebellion following Ehud’s death. While Ehud lived, the Jews were inspired by his example and his leadership to follow God. Yet, following his death, the Jews returned to their wicked ways: “1 Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died.” (Jdgs. 4:1). The Jews’ return to evil following Ehud’s death followed a familiar cycle. When Joshua was alive, they served God (Jdgs. 2:6-7). Yet, after his death, they began to worship the Canaanite gods (Jdgs. 2:10-13). God then raised up Othniel to deliver the Jews from their bondage. While Othniel was alive, they followed God and had peace (Jdgs. 3:10-11). But, after he died, they returned to their evil ways and found themselves in bondage again (Jdgs. 3:12-14). Because their obedience did not come from within, they rebelled as soon as their external restraints disappeared. “But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways.” (Jdgs. 2:19). The lesson for believers is that you will ultimately rebel if you are only obedient because you are being forced to by someone else or if you are only trying to please someone else.

  • Love the Lord and you will want to be obedient when no one is watching. Worship that is forced upon you by your parents, leaders, and others will not last. Thus, Moses advised that each person needs to search out God with all their heart and soul: “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Dt. 4:29). Moses repeated this commandment many times (Dt. 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 13:3; 30:6). The Psalmist also exhorted the people to actively seek God (Ps. 105:4; 63:1; 42:1-2). So did the prophets (Is. 55:6-7; Amos 5:6). When a Pharisee lawyer sought to test Jesus by asking Him to name the greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:34-35), Jesus responded: “You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:35-38; Dt. 6:4-9; 10:12-13; Ex. 20:1-8). If you love God, you will want to keep His commandments out of love, not obligation: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 Jo. 5:3). For those who do, He also promises: “He who seeks, finds.” (Lk. 11:10). Are you following the Ten Commandments out of love instead of obligation? If not, your heart likely will lead you to rebellion at some point when you think that no one is watching.

2. Ongoing Rebellion Leads to God’s Progressively Severe Discipline. Judges 4:2-3.

  • Israel’s 20-year bondage to the Canaanites. As He did previously, God disciplined the Jews for their rebellion to bring them back to Him. Yet, this time, He increased their time in bondage to an enemy nation to a total of 20 years: “2 And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. 3 The sons of Israel cried to the Lord; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years.” (Jdgs. 4:2-3). After the Jews first served the Canaanite gods, God initially allowed the Jews to experience eight years of Canaanite captivity (Jdgs. 3:8). After they returned to their sins following Othniel’s death, He allowed them to experience 18 years of captivity (Jdgs. 3:14). Thus, God’s 20-year punishment followed a pattern of progressive punishment that should have been apparent to the Jews at the time.

God allowed Canaanite King Jabin to subjugate Israel for 20 years1

  • God uses the things of the flesh that you fail to address to judge you. When Joshua led the Jews in the conquest of the Promised Land, the Jews previously faced a united army of all the northern Canaanite kingdoms under another “Jabin king of Hazor” (Josh. 11:1-5). The earlier King Jabin also had a technological advantage with horse-drawn chariots. God, however, easily defeated this same enemy previously (Josh. 11:8-15). Joshua previously followed God’s direction to destroy the enemy’s iron chariots (Josh. 11:9). God also told the Jews to drive out all of the Canaanites: “and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.” (Dt. 7:2, 16). “Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes.” (Dt. 20:16). Only the women and children were allowed to live (Dt. 20:14). The Jews, however, allowed members of the house of Jabin and some of the Canaanites to survive. The Canaanites grew in size and eventually rebuilt their iron plated chariots. The Canaanites symbolized the flesh. The lesson from this account is that sin, when left unchecked, will grow. Samuel repeated this lesson from the Jews’ history as a warning in his farewell address: “But they forgot the LORD their God, so He sold them into the hand of Sisera, captain of the army of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the king of Moab, and they fought against them.” (1 Sam. 12:19). Is there any sin in your life that you have allowed to fester? If so, it likely will grow into something worse.

  • Make no provision for your flesh. Like the Canaanites who waged war against the Jews, your flesh is also at war with your Spirit for control of your body. Like the Jews, you must make no provision for the flesh: “. . . put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Ro. 13:14). “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God . . .” (Ro. 8:7). The lusts of the flesh can also defile you (Mk. 7:20). When you give into the lusts of the flesh, you let the ruler of this world control you: “[T]he lust of the flesh . .. is not from the Father, but is from the world.” (1 Jo. 2:16; Ro. 8:8). Moreover, without Jesus, “. . . flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 15:50; Ro. 8:6, 13). You must hold your unclean thoughts captive or you may act upon them and become corrupted: “one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption . . .” (Gal. 6:8). Have you made any provision for the evil desires of the flesh in your life? When you do sin, are you seeking the Lord each day to renew your mind and repent of any evil thoughts? (Ro. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 6:15).

  • God disciplines out of love. As He had done previously, God disciplined the Jews 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). Are you letting the Potter’s discipline mold you into His image?

3. By Grace, God Empowers You to Free Yourself and Others from Bondage. Judges 4:4-7.

  • God’s section of the prophetess Deborah as Israel’s fourth deliverer. Because God does not want anyone to stay trapped in bondage, He raised up another deliverer. This time, He raised up a prophetess named Deborah: “4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 5 She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment. 6 Now she sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, ‘Behold, the Lord, the God of Israel, has commanded, ‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun. 7 I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.’’ (Jdgs. 4:4-7). In Hebrew, the name Deborah translates as “bee.” Although women carried a smaller role in that society, her inspired Word could sting and convict. She was unique as the only judge / deliverer who was either a prophet or prophetess. As a prophetess, she spoke God’s Word to the people to encourage, instruct, and convict them. The text says that she was “judging Israel” at the time she received her prophetic revelation for Barak to fight the Canaanites. Some believe that the act of “judging Israel” meant that she oversaw a legal proceeding where she spoke God’s Word to resolve disputes. Others interpret this to mean that she was in fact a leader of Israel at a time when it had no unifying rulers. She was unique amongst those who God had raised up for her positive encouragement: “Far from being solutions to the Canaanization of Israel thought and ethic, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson were themselves all part of the problem. These are not noblemen; they are ‘antiheroes.’ But as the only unequivocally positive major personality and as the only one involved in the service of God prior to her engagement in deliverance activities, she stands out as a lonely figure indeed.” (Daniel Block, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Judges, Ruth, Vol. 6, B & H Publishing Group 1999 p. 193-7). Like the man Shamgar, God used someone who was not highly regarded in that society, in this case a woman, to be His messenger. The lesson is that He can use you no matter what your background if you are humble, faithful, and obedient.

God can use anyone with faith to deliver others from bondage2

  • Women can play an important role in God’s Church. Miriam, Moses’ sister, was God’s first recorded “prophetess” (Ex. 15:20-21). Deborah was His second recorded prophetess and first female deliverer (Jdgs. 4:4). Huldah, the wife of Shallum and a contemporary of Jeremiah, was His third prophetess (Ki. 22:14). Other prophetesses included: Noadiah (Neh. 6:4); Isaiah’s wife (Is. 8:3); and Anna, the daughter of Phanuel (Lk. 2:36). The message is that women have an important role to play in God’s Church. Although they are different from men, they are equal in His eyes. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). He has also given men and women equal powers of the Holy Spirit. In the last days, both will speak His prophetic Word: “Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:29).

4. In Order for God to Free You, You Must First Have Faith and Trust in Him. Judges 4:8.

  • Barak’s refusal to fight without Deborah. Although God promised Barak that he would be victorious, He did not fully trust God. Thus, he demanded that Deborah join him in battle to signal to the Jews that God’s prophetess was with them: “8 Then Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’” (Jdgs. 4:8). In Hebrew, the name Barak translates as “thunderbolt.” His fear, however, made him the exact opposite of what his name suggested that he was. The Jews had previously refused to fight the Canaanites when they were armed with iron chariots (e.g., Josh. 17:16; Jdgs. 1:19). Barak was also overcome with fear and believed that he could not defeat the chariot armies of the Canaanites. He wanted Deborah at his side because he did not fully trust God to be there and guide him without her there. Although Barak’s faith failed, God later showed grace to remember him as a hero of the faith: “And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets,” (Heb. 11:32). From this, God seeks to encourage believers that He will remember your faith and forget your failures and sin.

  • Trust God and not your own understanding. Like Ehud, believers frequently face the problem of doubt. But, unlike Ehud, believers must face these challenges by trusting God and not relying upon their own understanding. Thus, when facing an earlier King Jabin, God encouraged Joshua not to fear the more technologically superior enemy. Unlike Ehud, Joshua trusted in God’s promises: “6 Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid because of them, for tomorrow at this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel; you shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.’ 7 So Joshua and all the people of war with him came upon them suddenly by the waters of Merom, and attacked them.” (Josh. 11:6-7). God had told the Jews not to fear their enemies many times before (e.g., Josh. 1:9; 8:1; 10:8, 25). Through Moses, He previously promised the Jews that they would defeat these “seven nations greater and stronger than you,” (Dt. 7:1). “Know therefore today that it is the LORD your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the LORD has spoken to you.” (Dt. 9:3). He describes these battles for your instruction: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Cor. 10:11). He wants you to have the same trust when you face your spiritual enemies. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5; 28:26; Ps. 62:8). “Trust in the LORD forever, for in GOD the LORD, we have an everlasting Rock.” (Is. 26:4). When you are facing doubt, are you trusting God by giving Him your burdens?

5. God Will Use the Meek and the Humble to Deliver Others. Judges 4:9-10.

  • Deborah’s prophecy that a woman would kill the enemy general Sisera. Because Barak had shown a lack of faith and trust, God warned that the honor of defeating the enemy general would fall to a woman. God not only rebuked Barak for his lack of faith, He showed that He uses the meek and humble as His instruments: “9 She said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.’ Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him; Deborah also went up with him.” (Jdgs. 4:9-10). Although the text would suggest that Deborah would receive this honor, the honor in fact fell to a lowly Kenite woman who would later slay Sisera: “Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; most blessed is she of women in the tent.” (Jdgs. 5:24). If you stay humble, God can also use you and glorify you.

Deborah encouraged the Jews to have faith and trust God3

  • God uses the meek and the humble as His servants. Through Deborah’s prophecy, God reveals that He uses the meek and humble servants who respond in faith to receive His honors: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12; Lk. 14:11; 18:14). “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.” (Prov. 29:23; 16:19). “But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”’ (Jam. 4:6, 10; 1 Pet. 5:5). Do you walk with humility and faith to allow God to honor you?

6. With Faith and Obedience, God Will Defeat Your Spiritual Enemy. Judges 4:11-16.

  • God’s defeat of Sisera’s army. As He had done for the Jews in Egypt, in the wilderness, and while invading the Promised Land, God supernaturally defeated superior enemy forces that faced the Jews: “11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated himself from the Kenites, from the sons 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. 12 Then they told Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor. 13 Sisera called together all his chariots, nine hundred iron chariots, and all the people who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. 14 Deborah said to Barak, ‘Arise! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hands; behold, the Lord has gone out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 The Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 But Barak pursued the chariots and the army as far as Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not even one was left.” (Jdgs. 4:11-16). God’s plan was to use the enemy’s pride against it. He had the Jews go to the Valley of Jezreel, where they would appear to be vulnerable to a chariot attack. But this was also a place that could be prone to flooding along the Kishon River. When Sisera positioned his chariots in the valley to charge the Jews, God unleashed heavy rains that flooded the area and trapped the Canaanites in their chariots. “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent of Kishon swept them away, the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon. O my soul, march on with strength.” (Jdgs. 5:20-21). Barak then fulfilled the meaning of his name by sending Jews like thunder to attack the Canaanites while they were trapped in their chariots and unable to defend themselves.

  • God also expects both your faith and obedience. Although God was responsible for the Jews’ victory, He would not act until the Jews acted in obedience to gather in the Valley of Jezreel. Three acts of great faith preceded God’s actions. First, Barak acted in faith that God was really speaking through Deborah. Second, in faith, 10,000 Jews accepted Barak’s call to arms. Third, both Barak and the 10,000 men acted in faith to believe that it was God’s plan for them to stand in a valley where they were at a tactical disadvantage against a more superior army. The lesson is that He expects both faith and obedience before He acts in your life. “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6). Have you acted in faith and obedience to His calling in your life?

  • God hardened the hearts of the Jews’ enemies to demonstrate His sovereignty. God previously hardened the hearts of the people of Northern Israel to show His power and sovereignty by destroying them in battle (Josh. 11:20). He most likely did so again here. In the same way, He also hardened Pharaoh’s heart 20 times in the book of Exodus (Ex. 4:21; 7:3, 13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 12, 34, 35; 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10; 14:4, 5, 8, 17). He hardened the enemies’ hearts to demonstrate His power and sovereignty over evil: “So their sons entered and possessed the land. And You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and You gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, to do with them as they desired.” (Neh. 9:24). He repeatedly demonstrated His power over evil so that you will have faith and trust Him.

  • God showed us His miracles to help us have faith when His hand is invisible. God initially showed His hand with visible miracles against the Egyptians and against southern Israel during the initial invasion of Israel. Yet, over time, He gradually changed His role to using an invisible hand to guide and defend the Jews. In a similar way, He showed believers Christ’s miracles in the New Testament. He now expects believers to act in faith to trust His invisible hand to guide and protect you. Like the Jews, He will never give you a situation that you cannot handle. “The LORD will give strength to His people; the LORD will bless His people with peace.” (Ps. 29:11). Do you trust in His invisible hand to protect you at all times, even when His presence does not seem clear?

7. No Evil Will Escape God’s Judgment. Judges 4:17-24.

  • Jael the Kenite’s slaying of general Sisera. In a fulfillment of Deborah’s prophecy, God used a woman to bring judgment upon Sisera. “17 Now 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. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 He said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him. 20 He said to her, ‘Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.’” 21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple. 23 So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the sons of Israel. 24 The hand of the sons of Israel pressed heavier and heavier upon Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin the king of Canaan.” (Jdgs. 4:17-24). Under ancient customs, only a husband could enter into a married women’s tent. Thus, Jael appeared to offer Sisera a hiding place where the pursuing Jews would never look. She was also part of a tribe that was aligned against Israel. For her to accept God’s calling in her life, she risked everything. It was nearly certain that if she succeeded both her husband and her community would expel her. She committed an act of treason and also violated the social norms of that time. She showed the same kind of faith and courage that Rahab showed in protecting the Jewish spies from the people of Jericho (Josh. 2:1-5). Like Jael, will you be bold in your faith for Him?

  • God sometimes uses believers as the instruments of His justice against evil. God does not call upon believers to do anything similar today. But He will eventually judge all evil, just as He did to Sisera and Jabin: “Deal with them as with Midian, as with Sisera and Jabin at the torrent of Kishon,” (Ps. 83:9). ‘“Even the bravest among the warriors will flee naked in that day,’ declares the LORD.” (Amos 2:16). “The God who executes vengeance for me, and subdues peoples under me.” (Ps. 18:47.) “O LORD, God of vengeance, God of vengeance, shine forth!” (Ps. 94:1.) “The God who executes vengeance for me, and brings down peoples under me,” (2 Sam. 22:48). Some will face His judgment on Earth through His appointed avengers, like Jael. “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). Today, instead of using vigilantes, He uses civil servants, law enforcement, and soldiers acting in an official capacity to judge evil. For those who escape judgment on Earth, all evil will be judged in heaven. All have sinned in God’s eyes: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jo. 1:8; Prov. 20:9). Your only escape from this judgment is to let Christ take the judgment for you. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). If you have accepted Jesus, are you warning others to do the same? (Matt. 28:16-20).

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) “Jael and Sisera” (oil canvas 1620)4