Guarding the Path: “Counting the Cost of the Test” – Judges 3:1-8

FORWARD OPERATING BASE GERONIMO, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ñ Marines assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, depart a vehicle checkpoint and patrol back to Forward Operating Base Geronimo May 30. The Marines are a part of the H&S guard force, a group of mostly non-infantrymen who perform infantry duties in the H&S battle space. The patrol was the first the Marines had completed on their own without being accompanied by a platoon sergeant or commander. ÒTheyÕre doing really well, a lot better than I expected,Ó Cpl. Eric Ramirez, squad leader, said. ÒOut on patrol theyÕve been building their confidence. TheyÕre learning a lot and are motivated.Ó  (Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga)

Many years ago, as I was facing graduation from High School, I thought I wanted to join the Marine Corps. In fact, I walked into the recruiting office and signed up. It was clear they offered the best training I could find in the fields of my interest, and they accepted me pending my placement on several cognitive tests and a physical. Strangely, I really enjoyed the battery of tests and did very well, gaining some great pointers from others in testing program concerning how to gain better placement opportunities. In the end, it was at my physical where things fell apart. God used a hernia to disqualify me, and a hospital stay to move me from my path to one of Bible study and ministry.

The Tests

The tests I took were a battery of examinations that included mechanical adeptness, psychological stability and even basic moral understanding. Bear in mind I was very young, and hadn’t yet considered many “life or death” scenario questions. I have a distinct memory of sitting in that old “one piece” high school classroom chair at the recruitment center in Philadelphia agonizing as I read some of the test questions over and over, trying to figure out the desired response of the creators of the test. I wanted to do well, and I wasn’t sure what all the answers were supposed to be. I wasn’t really giving answers based on my convictions, since I didn’t have many yet. I was just trying to tell them what they wanted to hear. It was frustrating, and it was the wrong way to handle the test – but it is what I did. Let me ask you something: Did you ever overanalyze a test to try to figure out what the teacher was truly trying to get from you? That is the subject of Judges 3:1-8, the passage of our study for this lesson.

In the early days of Israel’s settling the land, the author of the Book of Judges revealed that God set up a test. Though it appeared a simple “obedience test” it was much more. It is completely true to say the choice was simple – do what God commanded or don’t. Yet, that is just the surface issue. Let me explain:

A few years ago I got the crazy idea to remodel a bathroom in our home with furniture purchased from IKEA, which I have come to understand now is the Swedish word for “impossibly difficult assembly.” I marveled as I took out of the box the one thousand seventy-seven pieces to assemble a medicine cabinet. OK, maybe it was a few hundred pieces less, but it might as well have been more than a thousand. I followed the directions (sort of…) and assembled the cabinet…several times. Here is what I discovered: Every piece affected the whole assembly. If I left out a piece somewhere, it may not have seemed like a big deal – but later I discovered why that missing piece was essential, and disassembly began. God’s specific directions from the Word are just like that.

The depth and breadth of unintended consequences (when you look at it from the point of view of the Israelites) was vastly more than the people could see at the time of their disobedience. In fact, some of the effects weren’t spotted until generations later. So it is with important tests structured by God.

That is the beginning point of Judges 3. God told Israel to drive out the inhabitants of the land and not mix with them. He told them the source of their strength was not their technology, nor their warring ability – it was their dependence upon Him and obedience to His commands.

Setting the Story

Before we get into the test and its significance, let’s recall from our last study the fact that there is no real way to understand times of national moral, economic and political mayhem without hearing God’s perspective on it all. God was at work in the nation, and God still is at work in nations around the world today. We will never discern the times apart from His revealed truths. Life won’t make sense without His Word – but thankfully, we have it. He pointed to our destination, and then provided a map for the journey.

Let’s quickly set the story of the test in three facts that will become more and more relevant as we study our way through the pages of this book.

First, the account was originally three books. One has been peeled off, and the two others are stuck together in this account in our lap today.

1) Chapters 1-16 recount the period for the “wars of deliverance” beginning with initial defeats of the Canaanites by Judah and ending with the death of Samson. There are seven cycles we will study of God’s rescue and the people’s repetition of failure. There is much to learn from each account, and we will take our time there.

2) Chapters 17-21 are often understood by scholars to be an “appendix” that is apparently unrelated to the historical timeline of the previous chapters, and marked by the recurring phrase “when there was no king in Israel” (see Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). These look like collected accounts of the period put onto the record at God’s direction perhaps by Samuel the prophet.

3) Interestingly, the third book, the “Book of Ruth” was originally collected as a part of the Book of Judges (but later removed c. 450 CE). The small four chapter book was probably included in the scroll because it was set in that time and collected as a memoir of God’s work in one family that became central to the later Bible story – that of King David.

In the end, it is important to see the “meat” of the story as Judges 1-16. In those chapters you will find seven cycles of disobedience and delivery – all pressing the same basic point – disobedience brings disgrace. You may want to mark the chapters in your Bible that way: 1-16 “Seven cycles”; 17-21 “Appendix”.

Second, the people of the book are the Israelites.

The book records a bit more that a 300 year history of the extended family of Jacob, which became the “nation of Israel” as they settled the land during the days of Joshua. After his death, Israel faltered, declined, and backed away from God. The story is a national warning, but it is also tailored to a people who had a history of interactions with their Creator. Just as in our country in our own time, Israel offered a foreboding example of a nation who began with a great heritage of belief and deliverance became increasingly and institutionally hardened against the God that formed them as a nation. The God that had, in days past, been openly acknowledged as the Deliverer and Establisher of the people was now being systematically marginalized. If you are observant, you may feel the same today about your own country.

The fact was that Israel was established by God, and she was given His commandments and covenant, and in our story, she stood on the threshold of taking all the land granted to her ancestors by God. In all of that, God required only one thing in return—her faithful service to Him. In response, she denied the Lord, she defied His law, and they, in turn, she defiled the land – so God let judgment fall.

Is it so very difficult to spot the parallel in our own time and place? After incredible beginnings literally marinated by a Biblical world view, our nation has left little place for God’s recognition, God’s Word or even principles attached to that foundation. We are yet another people who have denied, defied and defiled – and the early results are showing in the fabric of the land. Yet, those who take the time to understand God’s Word and especially those who recognize the pattern from which human parenting is derived, know that even God’s spankings are the function of His love and care. We who study His Word become aware of the reality that people CAN walk with God in the midst of the turmoil that comes from a national turning from Him.

Third, God was still at work in people.

The most encouraging part of diving into this record is the recognition that God didn’t need the nation to do right for God to bless some profound individuals. The book of Judges recorded God elevating individuals to offer temporary deliverance to their nation – most as they listened to His Word. Several brought revivals to the people. All brought hope.

Let’s grab that truth as we look at the test God set up for them. Let’s smile and remember that although we cannot change the nation, we can change our lives to please Him. We cannot change our capitol, but we can impact significantly our little town for Jesus. Let’s let God run the world while we faithfully manage our homes, our offices, our community and our church family!

Look with me for a few moments at the beginning verses of Judges 3.

Judges 3:1 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. 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.

Though we are only looking at 3:1-8, much of our time will be consumed on the opening verse. The testing of God is the significant subject. Here is the truth that oozes from the verses…

Key Principle: God’s call for obedience is more significant than it first may appear. We mustn’t forget that disobedience has unintended consequences.

Israel probably couldn’t truly understand the power of obedience to the Lord and what that would produce. In most cases, people don’t. They don’t recognize that following the Lord closely in the raising of your children in one humble tent at the edge of the camp can change a nation for decades.

Let’s make this perfectly clear. Should the Lord tarry and our nation continue, someone is raising a future President. Some Sunday School class may be training a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Armed Forces. What happens in small places can have huge rippling effects.

Take a quick look at the first eight verses of chapter three and divide the passage into three simple thoughts:

• First, there is “What God did” (3:1-4). Essentially, God left nations to test His people – and did not assist them in driving them out. If they had obeyed and followed Him, He would have done for them things they could not have done on their own. They didn’t – so He didn’t.

• Next, there is “How people responded” (3:5-7). The mid-point of the passage showed a slide into rebellion. It began in verse five with “living among” and by verse six that gave way to “lived with and married” and finally “served their gods”.

• Finally, there is “How God staged a new learning situation” (3:8). The final note of the section set up the cycles of disobedience we are going to look at more closely in coming lessons. Essentially it was “God’s anger” that caused a “sale” of the people into the hands of hostile pagans.

What God did

God back to the beginning and look at what God did. I count three actions God took that set up the test. Do you see them?

• In the first action, God removing His hand of protection, marked in verse on with the words “the Lord left”.

• In the second action, God turned the perils into a classroom in verse two, marked by the words “Israel might be taught war”.

• In the third action, God staged specific tests found in the words of verse four “They were for testing Israel…”

It is the first action that warrants an even closer look, because it offers a warning that is easy to forget.

God removed His hand of protection. God did not assist the people to drive out the nations before them. He allowed the people to be introduced to struggles they were not, up to that point, prepared to face.

3:1 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;

When we don’t walk with God, even as His people, we learn that disobedience has a bigger price tag than it appears. Sometimes God’s judgment is not an action He takes, but rather a protection He withholds. Obedience to His Word brings blessing and protection – but disobedience brings more than simple judgment. It brings the perils of other situations we never even considered before When people violate God’s commands, standards and principles, they lose “a protection fence” that very command placed around them. Often, the fence protected not just ONE thing, but MANY things.

Among the various pieces of the “armor of God” that were mentioned by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:10-20, Bible students read of the “breastplate” – a leather cover over the chest. That protective covering must be deliberately placed over our heart for the purpose of guarding the heart. That breastplate is one of “right choices.” In other words, right choices guard the heart as we move through the battlefield of life in a fallen world.

The Rain Forest Problem

One of the common mistakes people make is what I call the “rain forest” problem. In my lifetime, many a rain forest has been stripped from our planet, as people looked to “tame” the landscape and harvest timber from it. It was only after many plants were gone and habitat disrupted that we came to recognize the number of species we drove to virtual extinction. Why did this matter? One of the unintended consequences of the decision to strip the land was the elimination of many plants, for instance, that had once provided medicinal values that have not been fully tested. What if that stripping eliminated the one plant that could bring the cure for leukemia or heart disease? We won’t know now. One guy’s choice on one afternoon with a backhoe and a personal dream of prosperity may have made the whole world pay a price of a lost cure.

Israel didn’t understand the long term damage involved in their decision making, so they assumed if nothing immediately perceptible that was “bad” happened – the decision wasn’t that problematic. Believers still do this all the time. Nations do it too. Wise is the nation that looks down the road. Wise is the follower of God who heeds this word.

Most of the real pain of disobedience isn’t what you see in the immediate. Unintended consequences of rebellion are often the cause of the greatest grief. Let me ask it this way: “What was involved in the “fence of protection” God set up for them in the desert that was about to come down by mixing with the people?”

I mean, after all, what was so bad about not driving out the inhabitants of the land? What I am really asking is this: ‘Why would “getting along” with the world system be so devastating?’

Don’t dismiss the question – because it isn’t some arcane history reference – you and I are dealing with this right here, right now.

The Importance of Distinctive Living

The answer to the importance of the separation lies in two simple concepts.

First, there is the concept of obedience to the Creator. When God directs, the debate is supposed to be over for the believer. How we feel about God’s standard isn’t the issue – only that God knows what we don’t – so we obey. He knows what we don’t know about risk, and we must learn to trust His Word more than our own rationalization.

Have you ever watched a movie and found yourself siding with the adulterer and not with the faithful partner? I have. Hollywood is great at weaving a tale that can easily draw you into a compromise of any value. Rationalization is often the fruit of such a “set up.”

In fact, whenever I read some compassionate sounding article that tries to get me to feel sympathy for someone who has a lifestyle that is in open rebellion to God’s Word, I recall a famous quote by Alexander Pope:

Vice is a monster, of so frightful mien
As to be hated – needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

This is the method of the enemy.

First you notice the rebel and their way repulses you. When you see enough of them (say on show after show, night after night) they become a common part of the landscape. Soon your mind accommodates those who rebel. Then you sympathize with those who feel like they don’t quite “fit in” with you. Some critique your “stand-off-ish” behavior, and you respond by embracing them out of compassion. Eventually, you accept the premise of their ideals – even though at first you would have been able to see through the truth. Slowly, you drop your objections that were rooted in God’s Word. For a time, you feel like you all have unity… until the national ship sinks, or until the next generation is so tainted by the picture that rebellion begins to seem acceptable.

I know mentioning this is counter to our culture – because “unity” always seems a kind word and “distinctiveness” sounds like a divisive one. Here is the truth: obedience to God will often be framed as the “problem” by a world in rebellion.

King Ahab thought Elijah the Prophet was the problem of Israel – not his sinful marriage and pagan practices.

When God told them to separate from the tribes and be a distinct people, He meant not emulate, accommodate or try to comfort the tribes in pagan revelry around them. He meant not to learn to “hum their hot hits”, sing their sensual songs and laugh at their course jokes.

I don’t know another way to say this: God is less interested in a believer fitting in to the world than the modern church appears to be.

Israel could walk in humility before God – and that would produce a loving and faithful testimony. They didn’t need to be harsh to be distinct – and we don’t need to be either. Here is the key: When a believer is more worried about offending the world’s sensitivities than offending the God they claim to serve – they are off track. This isn’t about the world and their natural fallen desire to get us to conform – it is about disobedience in standing against being “pressed into the mold of the world”.

God told them not to accommodate the world, because they couldn’t handle their presence long and remain distinct. He told them to remain separate – but the pressure to be like the world around them was powerful and profound. Ask any believer… it still is!

Are we really any different? What is the price tag of laughing at the world’s degraded humor on a sitcom in our living room? What is the total bill? When and how will it be paid in the lives of our children and our nation? Can you predict the outcome of the lack of separation we have allowed in our homes?

Let me be clear: We raised some of the most anti-god legislators in our own lazy, indistinct churches and colleges.

We must recognize that God’s Word warned the believer that a lack of separation from the world would launch a barrage of unintended consequences.

The World’s Mold Press

The Bible refers to the system operated by fallen men who do not know God in simple terms; it is called “the world.” This fallen system of influence currently dominates the planet because of the agenda of a wicked prince of the air. It wasn’t like that in the beginning. When God created the world it was “good”, but that was before the rebellion in the Garden. The cosmos was radically altered when sin marred the perfect design. For that reason, Paul wrote in Romans 5:12 “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”

Even in the current state, some part of God’s original design can still be seen in the world’s design. God’s finger prints are still there. Again in Romans 1:20 we read: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” In addition to fingerprints of the Creator, God’s Word reveals that He retains ultimate power over the fallen world. The Apostle John wrote of Him: 1John 4:4b “… because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.

To be clear: In its fallen state, the world system has developed an opposing sense of wisdom to God’s truth and is easily inclined to misunderstand and even hate those who trust God – because they live in a state of rebellion against God and His standards. Scripture abounds with reminders like: 1 John 3:13 “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you”. Other similar reminders warn: Colossians 2:8 “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

In other words, the system of the world is both temporary, and bound for destruction in hostility against God. They dream of things that won’t matter and won’t last. Believers are told in Scripture, therefore: 1 John 2: 15 “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”

The fallen world is constantly pressing you to be in its mold. People increasingly demand that morality be established by popular vote.

Can we honestly say that we live in a generation of believers that do not love exactly what the world loves? Do we live distinctly?

Perhaps it is time for us to remember that our salvation was (in part) to pull us out of the world system and empower us to walk in a way pleasing to our Heavenly Father.

Galatians 4:3 says were WERE “in bondage under the elements of the world” but through our salvation Jesus (Galatians 1:4) “gave Himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father”. Paul described God’s salvation as (Ephesians 2:10) “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

Though the current status of the fallen world is operated under Satanic dominion (Ephesians 6:12), our real problem is that it is possible for a believer to show greater allegiance for this fallen world then for the things of God by their walk, as Demas did in 2 Timothy 4:10.

It isn’t impossible for believers to please God while in this world, but only if we intentionally walk in the distinctiveness of living according to the instruction of His Holy Word.

As surprising as it sounds to some – that isn’t a message of works, but the very essence of the message of God’s grace. Listen carefully to the words of Paul to Titus:

Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of [h]our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. 15 These things speak and exhort and reprove with all [i]authority. Let no one disregard you.

Paul said: Grace appeared and delivered salvation – but that isn’t all it did. Grace also instructs us to deny ungodliness in our lives as believers. It doesn’t provide license, but rather calls us to walk away from making our lives about what the world values. We are called by grace to live with sensitivity toward God’s desires for us. We anticipate, not the lauding of the world, but the coming of the Lord. Jesus saved us to remove us from living a life of rebellion. He is working in us to purify us and make us hungry to do what pleases Him. That is at the heart of our message.

Indistinct living brings calamity.

Mixing our walk with the world’s values will bring immediate popularity – but long term disaster. The world doesn’t want a distinct church. It wants a harmless, toothless, pablum-filled, sentiment-based church. It wants a church of happy thoughts and hapless behavior that offers reinforcement to any popular sin. Look down at verse 8, and you will see the calamity… God’s anger and man’s enslavement..

Judges 3:8 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.

God’s call for obedience is more significant than it first may appear. We mustn’t forget that disobedience has unintended consequences.

What will be the consequences to a nation that defines its core unit of family on the whim of those who act in flagrant rebellion against the Bible? How will parades look in the coming years when sensuality and vulgarity are openly accepted? What will our nation look like when open hostility to believers is widely accepted as justified?

Get a bit more personal for a moment. What will your children grow to be like when they emulate the TV shows you have watched and the movies you have talked about? Listen to the lyrics of the songs you have stored in your heart from the world. Do you want your children to live out those values? People often make the mistake of thinking they can see ahead clearly:

The term cobra effect stems from an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising persons began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

Are you SURE you know what your compromises of obedience truly cost?