Guarding the Path: “A Question of Honor” – Judges 4 and 5

Have you seen a picture, then had someone instruct you about the story behind the picture, and then you saw it again in a whole new light? Let me offer and example:

Praying_Hands_-_Albrecht_DurerFor several hundred years, people have seen beauty in the detail of the art masterpiece known as “The Praying Hands.” Behind this work of art is a fascinating story of love and sacrifice.

The painter, Albrecht Durer, lived in Europe in the last part of the 1400s and the first part of the 1500s. He left us with paintings, etchings and some “books” of human proportion still studied by art students today.

As two struggling young art students, Albrecht Durer and Franz Knigstein worked as laborers to earn money for their art studies. But the work was long and hard and it left them little time to study art. Finally they agreed to draw lots and let the loser support them both while the winner continued to study. Albrecht won, but he agreed to support Franz after achieving success so his friend could finish his studies. After becoming successful, Albrecht sought out Franz to keep his bargain. But he soon discovered the enormous sacrifice his friend had made. As Franz had worked at hard labor, his fingers had become twisted and stiff. His long, slender fingers and sensitive hands had been ruined for life. He could no longer manage the delicate brush strokes so necessary for executing fine paintings. But in spite of the price he had paid, Franz was not bitter. He was happy that his friend Albrecht had attained success. One day Albrecht saw his loyal friend kneeling, his rough hands entwined in silent prayer. Albrecht quickly sketched the hands, later using the rough sketch to create his masterpiece known as The Praying Hands. (Taken from When we add the story behind the picture, the meaning behind each movement of the artist’s hands creating this pen and ink drawing becomes more significant. There is an emotional expression of gratitude and care that adds to the beauty of the picture.

In the same way that a picture may look better when you know the story behind, sometimes a story takes on even greater significance when you know the events surrounding it. Our lesson today is about a brutal struggle during a terrible war. The events cannot be understood properly sitting on padded seats in an air-conditioned church. This is a story of gore, brutality and bitter war. It comes from a field of blood and sweat, misdeeds of evil men who faced a day of reckoning when God worked through a smaller number of warriors given word that God was about to set them free.

In all that, it isn’t the story you may think it is. It isn’t just a celebration of how God worked in His people during a dark time. There is a story behind the picture we are left in Scripture. This is a story about the kind of person on whom God bestows honor. It is a warning not to throw off your armor and look for another to shoulder your responsibility to follow God’s call in YOUR LIFE.

Today we are looking at the story in Judges 4 and 5. It won’t be clear immediately, but if you listen to the whole story, you will hear this warning…

Key Principle: To be fully honored by God we must choose to fully obey Him in our called work.

When God calls you to do something, you must take that responsibility very seriously. That call may be to be an example of Christian purity in your dating relationships at college. It may be to show relentless patience at work to people who need to know Jesus Christ. Your call is personal and layered – and each part is a “God-revealed” set of goals in your life.

Here is the truth: When we decide to withhold obedience, we forfeit the special blessing God affords those who will obey Him in spite of the appearance of how it will “work out.” God may call you to do something hard, but He will never call you to do something useless. If He wants you to do it, it is because He is working a plan. Let me take you to the text of Judges 4 and show you how this works…

The Story

Israel fell backward into sin and rebellion that angered God once again. Note the opening verses. The text revealed:

First, they walked away from God.

Judges 4:1 “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord…”

Second, they lost their godly leader.

Judges 4:1b “…after Ehud died.”

Third, God showed them graphically what happened spiritually.

Judges 4:2 “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. “

Fourth, Israel was bound under a power with superior technology.

Judges 4:3 “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.”

Now we find the people in a time of terrible bondage. The scarcity of words in the text may make you think it wasn’t all that tough. Stand back and watch as a tribal chieftain drags off your beautiful daughter to rape her because you have no power to stop him and you will understand those times. Work and labor all year long to reap a harvest, only to watch men from a neighboring city come by and steal your harvest and burn the remainders of your field. These were not uncommon events in antiquity for those under occupation. Times of bondage under a bitter hand were nothing short of terrible.

Do you get enraged when you watch the news and see injustice in our government? You are getting only the briefest taste of the oppression of this text…

Note that the cry didn’t make God offer immediate deliverance. Hard bondage is the result of heart mutiny – and that should make us think about our obedience to the Lord in our choices…Our choices have consequences, and that should make us choose more carefully.

Also bear in mind the enemy didn’t just have a technological advantage, they had an overwhelming advantage. God placed them against an awe-inspiring opposition to ensure they recognized their bondage. Israelite foot soldiers standing before chariots would have looked like a man or woman in 1989 at Tianen Men square, standing before a tank. The mismatch was astounding!

Yet, God wasn’t silent. The text continued…

Judges 4:4 “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.

It may seem irrelevant for God to position a woman under a palm tree on a distant hill, singing and seeking God – but it wasn’t. God was about to speak and that distance from God that started the whole problem – because of the choice of rebellious people – was about to be solved, IF a man named Barak listened to the call of God and made a specific choice to do what he was told. Listen as the writer tells the story:

Judges 4:6 “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.’”

God closed the gap. He wasn’t distant while they languished. He was speaking. Barak appeared on cue. He listened to the prophetess, and all was set to go, to fight and to win. Yet, that isn’t the whole story. Our designated hero had a reservation about the marching orders he was given. Look closely:

Judges 4:8 “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.” 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…”

Barak didn’t just obey God’s call – he wanted to MODIFY the terms a bit. Perhaps he didn’t believe people would follow him based solely on what Deborah prophesied.

Has the Word of God said something that challenged you to think differently about how you should live than the world around you? It isn’t so hard if that challenge is personal and private – but what if the challenge was in an area that would require you to overtly stand out for God? It is easy to criticize Barak, and then turn right around and do exactly what he did. “God” you may say. “I will do exactly what you have asked, but I need something else from you first.”

Deborah was willing to go with him – but she warned him that compromise on simple obedience came at a price. When we bargain with God about our obedience, we are playing as though we have equal standing and knowledge with Him. We are acting like His command was offered for collaboration rather than for simple obedience. With some reflection, that isn’t a very bright idea. Keep reading…

Judges 4:14 “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.”

The story seems clear enough. God told Deb to pull aside Barry and gather forces, because God was going to throw off a yoke of bitter bondage. Barry’s men had an edge in the fight from God’s promises through Moses long before under the shadow of Mt. Sinai:

Leviticus 26:7 “But you will chase your enemies and they will fall before you by the sword; 8 five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall before you by the sword. 9 So I will turn toward you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm My covenant with you.” (Leviticus 26:7-8).

Barry had God’s promise and God’s call to be obedient. Yet, his force was smaller and less technologically advanced. Why would the attendance of one woman tilt the scales?

First, it is important to note that God wasn’t asking Barak to stand in front of the chariot firing squad – God had a plan. It was to use Barak and his men as the LURE to draw out the chariots into the fields of the Jezreel.

Judges 4:7 “I will draw out (Hebrew: “maw-shak”) 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.”

The men of Sisera and Jabin needed room to maneuver, and the flat lands were perfect – unless the unthinkable happened… and God stepped ined. You cannot see God’s fingerprint in the battle of Judges 4, but you can in the song of Deborah in the recount of Judges 5. She sang about a storm and the quaking of the ground:

Judges 5:4 “LORD, when You went out from Seir, When You marched from the field of Edom, The earth quaked, the heavens also dripped, Even the clouds dripped water. 5 “The mountains quaked at the presence of the LORD, This Sinai, at the presence of the LORD, the God of Israel.

Many Bible scholars read this to mean that God interrupted the normal weather patterns with a “desert storm” like the one recorded in Habakkuk. This storm came off the normal pattern from the southern desserts and not from the Mediterranean. The accompanying earthquake may have dislodged some hills and made a tremendous show of God’s powerful interruption. For an ancient fighter, it was surely a sign that God was with Israel.

Wasn’t that what Barak wanted? Didn’t he agree to go with Deborah because it would show that GOD WAS WITH HIM. Look at how SMALL his thinking turned out to be. He wanted a prophet, but God scheduled an earthquake and a desert storm!

Those who study World War II are always impressed by the might of the tank invasion of Russia by Nazi forces. The tanks were formidable and menacing, but they had two weaknesses – the need for a constant flow of fuel to keep going, and the problem of operation in the extreme conditions of the Russian winter. What was a mud pit gave way to a frozen tundra. Russian fighters were fierce, to be sure. Yet, any analyst of that conflict will tell you the Nazi forces were as defeated by the Russian landscape as by the Russian people. Sometimes even the most menacing force can be stopped by the Father of our natural world.

Let’s think about what happened in northern Israel on that occasion. The text carefully completes the scene in Judges 4 of the battle in a little nearby tent, where a woman with a tent peg murders a sleeping general.

When the rain came down and the landscape shook, the iron chariots got stuck in the mud. It was apparent the God of Israel was not on the sidelines in this conflict, and Sisera’s forces jumped from their iron boat anchors and were slaughtered while on the run. They didn’t run alone. The general took off on foot as well. He found a tent in an encampment of a family who wasn’t known to be hostile to the Hazorites, got a warm glass of milk and lay beneath a heavy carpet to rest. Unfortunately, he got a pounding in the head by the woman of the house. He fell asleep and Yael took a mallet and drove a tent peg through his temple, killing the general. At that very spot, Barak would be shown his dead body later in the story.

Let’s face it, the story offers some challenges to our understanding:

• The challenge of the story is that it is told in two ways – once as a narrative (Judges 4), and the second as a lyric poem (Judges 5). Only by combining the two can you get a real sense of the story. You wouldn’t know the weather or earthquake played a role without the song.

• Another problem was the story told of two heroines and a reluctant hero. In days where roles of women are on the minds of many in the world, the story adds questions to those who want to walk with God in propriety. Does the story somehow endorse women as leaders of God’s people? Some argue it does. In fact, every time I hear someone who wants to argue for a woman Pastor, they invariably refer to Deb and Yael, and I am reminded not to “nod off” in their presence.

• Another challenge is the fact that the story offers a gory scene of premeditated murder, which makes telling the story difficult to those who are sensitive of the Biblical norms. My answer to that became clear when I spent time in war on a battlefield and learned that life is surreal in that environment. I hope the few words I offered on the pain of those days helped make this a little clearer.

• Those problems are significant, but they aren’t the real problem of understanding this story. The real issue is the story is related from one culture to another. The world of the Near East is an honor and shame based culture – and ours is not. That is why the “main point” of the story to my Arab or Israeli students is not the same “main point” often discovered by students in the west.

We don’t all approach the Bible from the same world view, and that can get in our way. Let’s take a few minutes to overcome the obstacles if we can. Let’s answer some questions that will help us unpack the challenges:

First, why tell the story twice?

The story in chapter four is meant to help clarify the well-known anthem of chapter five. The song was well-spread, but the story behind it – like the praying hands – was likely less known.

Why does the story seem so strange to the normal tone of the Bible?

Perhaps it helps us, first, to unpack differences in the way we think from the Biblical person.

• For instance, we think of judges as those in long black robes that sit behind a wood desk with a gavel, and pass sentence on the guilty.

• We think of prophets as those wild-eyed men with long beards that look Heavenward and say profound things of God.

Biblically speaking, we are wrong on both counts. Neither were “locked images” in the mind of the Biblical person.

Look at what the people of Israel actually saw: A woman was sitting beneath a tree composing songs and helping people solve their disputes. She helped people find God’s solutions to their problems with one another in a fallen world. She wasn’t an elder at the city gate, but rather a wife under a palm tree perched in the hill country of Ephraim, north of what is now Jerusalem.

Keep looking. This woman was a prophetess. This wasn’t a depressed Jeremiah or prophetic voice like Isaiah. She was a composer and singer of songs. Does that sound strange? It wasn’t that unusual. In truth, many early prophets were composers and singers. We KNOW she was, because we have the “hot hit” she wrote. The Biblical Commentator Adam Clarke noted something that may have escaped your notice in Bible study: “prophesying often implies singing”. Other commentators like Jamieson, Fausset and Brown noted that “instrumental music is called ‘prophesying’” in texts like 1 Samuel 10 and I Chronicles 25.

1 Samuel 10 told of the young Benjamite named Saul and his journey toward becoming king over Israel. The Prophet Samuel told him to approach a procession of prophets, and then identified them:

1 Samuel 10:5 “Afterward you will come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is; and it shall be as soon as you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and a lyre before them, and they will be prophesying.”

Other passages like 1 Chronicles 25:1-5 remind us that prophesying was often accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals. You may recall Miriam’s song in Exodus 15, and then note that she was called a prophetess.

The bottom line is that Deborah was a woman in touch with God, used by Him, and very wise. She learned God’s song and her constant communion with Him made her voice different. The same will happen to you if you spend deep and rich time with Him this week.

God offers only good words about her. There is not a single word of condemnation – nothing but praise for her faith and service. She was:

• A prophetess – Judges 4:4
• A judge – Judges 4:5
• A woman who was used by God – Judges 4:6
• A self-described “mother in Israel” – Judges 5:7
• And the writer of lyrics – Judges 5.

Does the story offer a basis for women in leadership of the church?

Don’t lose perspective and overplay what is in the text. She was not the head of the nation. She was not called to lead the battle. She did not become the High Priestess of the Tabernacle, or a “Pastor-in-chief.” She was a woman of God to whom the Master spoke. She was not afforded a fixed office, but deeply used by God to encourage a man to lead the nation in war. This isn’t a “Joan of Arc” story. She didn’t don armor to lead the fight. Her work of encouragement, like the work of literally millions of insightful women in history, was invaluable – but doesn’t overrule God’s expressed call when it comes to a modern church and its pulpit. It simply doesn’t apply.

The story is not a nod to feminism or some attempt to stop men from missing the value of women – that is often taught but never really the point. The Bible is clear on the equal value of both men and women, and the different assigned works God has for each of them.

In the home, a woman was not allowed to take a vow before God without the confirmation of her father, or later her spouse. It wasn’t because her mouth was defective. It wasn’t because she was silly-headed and couldn’t think straight about serious things. It was to establish the need to cover her by the men God put in her life. It was more about THEIR RESPONSIBILITY as about HER ABILITY.

Nowhere are we left in the Bible with the blanket impression that women are stupid, under-developed, or unequal. We do, however, acknowledge that there ARE created differences in our bodies. Men who know God and His Word want to protect our women – not abuse them. We want to cherish them, not trample them.

Godly men are ashamed of a nation that would send our women into battle beside our men. Godly men appreciate the voices of godly women. We KNOW God speaks through them, and we learn from them, and feel nothing but gratitude to God for giving them wisdom.

When the Bible says that women should not teach or have authority over adult men, it equally gives her a work of supreme importance in relation to other women and to the precious children God provides to us. The veil of leadership and responsibility for decisions in the spiritual work of the church is a job God designed men to do. When godly MEN do that job, our churches grow stronger and are better protected. When they don’t step up and do their job… the church suffers.

Here is the truth: wise women in the church won’t simply sit back and let that happen. They will encourage the men to get busy, lead and protect. Godly women have always been willing to push men forward.

Another question we need to briefly consider is this: Why the gory presentation of a “death by tent peg?”

As strange as it sounds, this is intended to be a reminder of some simple ironies that should encourage you:

• The height of man’s warfare technology was defeated by a simple pouring of God‘s well-timed gentle rain drops and a mixture of field mud.

• The highest ranking man in the field – a Field Marshall – was taken out by an angry momma with a tent peg.

We should be taking encouragement from this. God doesn’t need an army – just an obedient servant who will act when and where He directs. He isn’t befuddled by the high technology of men who promote their anti-god agenda – He is in charge of vast, quiet, waiting forces that can be employed when necessary. Ask the angry and rebellious Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16) – the earth can open. Watch when the evil one surrounds His people and try to drown them – the thirsty earth can drink the flood (Revelation 12). God has at His disposal massive and limitless power.

God knows that evil has increasingly and powerfully grabbed our educational institutions, our media outlets and our governmental halls. They look big and He looks passive. Never count God out. On a lonely hillside at a gathering of tents is a woman setting up tents for her brood of children – and God is about to use her.

The story may be gory, but the story recounts a terrible moment of warfare, strength from an unlikely source, and man’s ingenuity defeated by God’s powerful simplicity. That’s why the author needed to include the story.

That nasty note brings me back to where we began…the point of the story. Here again, we find ourselves outside looking in to another culture. As western moderns, we want to celebrate the WIN. As near easterners, my students would be consumed with the issue of the passage found in Judges 4:9.

Why is the major issue of the passage “honor” and not “victory?”

Before a single sling is fired or spear tossed, there was a “battle” in the passage. It wasn’t in the field of war – but in the heart of a leader. That’s where battles often have to be put down first.

God told the man what to do through Deb’s voice. He wasn’t ready to do it without an outward, physical sign of God’s presence. God planned one, but Barak couldn’t yet see it and he wanted something more immediate before agreeing to follow the call of God. It isn’t that he disbelieved the call was from God – or her presence would have meant nothing. It is because he wanted to negotiate terms of obedience.

In the end, the central idea of this story is truly about honor. Remember our key principle? To be fully honored by God we must choose to fully obey Him in our call.

Barak had God’s promise and God’s call. Rather than do what God said, he wanted a physical helper. Moses did it with Aaron, his brother in Exodus 4, only to regret that after the golden calf of Exodus 32. Refusing God’s call unconditionally, led to later problems – and the honor that God wanted to give was bestowed on another.

Think about God’s call in your life. If you don’t know what it is, you need to seek it. If you do, you need to follow it.

Why? Because very soon, you will stand before the Savior and see Him face to face.

Some of us will be called home in death. For the rest…HE’S COMING BACK…The greatest man in history, had no servants, yet they called him Master. He had no degree, yet they called him Teacher. He made no medicines, yet they called him Healer. He led no army, yet kings rightly feared Him. He won no military battles, yet He conquered the world. He committed no crime, yet they crucified Him. He was buried in a tomb, yet He lives today. His name is Jesus. He is calling you to live for Him.

Soon He returns. When He comes, the Bible says we will all stand before Him. I will know if I followed His call for my life. I will be measured.

He will know, and so will I. What honors have I forgone wasting my life on self-ambition and dead-end projects that won’t last beyond the few years of my sojourn here?

Unless you have lived under a rock or hate all professional sports and don’t hang out with people that like sports, you probably know the name Lance Armstrong. Lance Edward Armstrong (born September 18, 1971) is an American who became famous as a professional road racing cyclist. He was the 1993 Elite Men’s Road Race World Champion, and won the Tour de France seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005. He has an interesting story… At age 16, Armstrong began competing as a triathlete and was a national sprint-course triathlon champion in 1989 and 1990. In 1992, he began a career as a professional cyclist. He had notable successes along the way between 1993 and 1996, including a World Championship. In 1996, he was diagnosed with cancer. After his recovery, he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation (now the Livestrong Foundation) to assist other cancer survivors. With a champion’s story, you would think that was the ending newsreel of a life of discipline and training that paid off in incredible dividends. The problem is that Armstrong had been the subject of doping allegations ever since winning the 1999 Tour de France. In 2012, a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation concluded that Armstrong had, in fact, used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career in spite of his full throated denials. They named him as the ringleader of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” He received a lifetime ban from competing in all sports that follow the World Anti-Doping Agency code and was also stripped of all of his achievements after 1998, including his seven Tour de France titles. In the aftermath of his fall from grace, a CNN article wrote that “The epic downfall of cycling’s star, once an idolized icon of millions around the globe, stands out in the history of professional sports.”

Isn’t it sad that his career of apparent success was left in ashes?

Let me ask you something.

If Jesus came, right now, and you were brought before His Bema seat as a Jesus follower, what would the end of your time with Him be like?

The Scriptures in 1 Corinthians 3 and 2 Corinthians 5 say that if you know Jesus as Savior, you will not face hell, but you will face a performance judgment. Maybe you look to us like you have it all together. So did Lance. Will your Jesus career end as a pile of ashes? Let’s be clear: To be fully honored by God we must choose to fully obey Him in our call.