Guarding the Path: “Outcome Based Obedience” – Judges 3:7-14

selective hearingThe problem in today’s lesson can be boiled down to one of “selective hearing.” Do you know someone (or are you perhaps married to them?) who hears only part of what you say?

Let’s admit it. Sometimes we don’t get the whole story, but we think we did! Consider for a few minutes the truth involved in hearing part of the Word…

All the way back to your classwork at school, you learned to grasp the concept of “outcomes.” If you studied hard, you probably got a better grade. Later, you entered the working world and got a job, so that your faithful labors entitled you to a paycheck. This is simple effort and benefit, work and outcome. In my lifetime, the idea of “outcomes” was applied to education (called OBE, or “Outcome-based education”). This was a learning theory floated in the public educational system beginning with the generation that graduated from college in the 1960’s, amid the turmoil of that period. It was an “equality” based idea that many paired with the desegregation movement of my youth.

The idea was this: education should provide an experience in which each student should have an achievable goal presented, and each should be able to attain that goal through their individual learning style. The role of the teacher was reduced from authoritarianism to more of a trainer or facilitator and/or mentor. In light of the rebellion of our youth, some thought it necessary to apply more “reasoning apparatus” to help students draw their own conclusions and reduce the sense of gap between authoritarian teacher and student. By the early 1990’s, the United States formally adopted OBE programs and it has been somewhat adapted over the years.

The American people seemed eager to accept drastic surgery on our public education system and state departments of education seized the opportunity to press acceptance of OBE as the cure. The theory collided against parents across America who were even more agitated than they were about explicit sex education. Thousands gathered in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio in reaction. For many, it felt like the schools were “dumbing down” information to help those who were slowest to gain some mastery of the fundamentals. One parent expressed it this way: “If OBE were applied to basketball, the basket would have to be lowered so all could score equally.

This is not an attempt to evaluate OBE education, but rather to explain the term “outcome-based” as it applies to a community and standards. In this lesson, I would like to apply the term to an elemental understanding of how God works with people. It will take some time and patience to grasp this idea, but I believe it will be well worth your time.

Let me set up the subject this way: I believe immature followers of Jesus struggle because of a wrong concept that was, and is, often unintentionally taught from the Word in an incomplete way. One of the chief places where that wrong understanding is derived is the book we are studying, the Book of Judges.

Think of it this way: Many believers learned a form of “do right to get right” thinking. The idea is this: If I obey God, my life will go well. An offshoot of this can be found in the faulty giving strategy” “Give a dollar and God will give back ten-fold.” The problem is, while these things may happen, God has NOT guaranteed them to happen in every believer at every time as some teachers seem to claim. In fact, the Word is filled with people like Job, Daniel and early Christian Apostles who “did right” but received in response either trouble, persecution or pain.

The truth is more complicated than just “do right and get right” because life is measured by God in eternal terms, not temporal terms. The outcome we should be expecting for choosing obedience and placing our trust in God’s Word should reflect that thinking. Here is the truth for the mature believer’s understanding…

Key Principle: The prize of life isn’t material blessing, but a walk confident of the presence of God.

To understand this concept, let’s first explore where this “outcome-based” obedience thinking came from in the text of Scripture – because it IS represented in Scripture, but is not the whole picture. Knowledge of partial truth is often dangerous.

Knowing that a car needs fuel is only part of the story. Knowing which type of fuel must also be a part of that knowledge. Recognizing you need a tank with you to dive into the depths of the ocean is important, but having it filled with oxygen is also an important part of the survival puzzle.

Look at a few verses that set up a pattern for much of the Book of Judges. The chapter (Judges 3) offers two of the “seven cycles of sin” presented in Judges 3-16. Remember, that is the core teaching section, because after Judges 16:31, the rest of the “book” contains unlinked stories in what could be called an “Appendix section.”

The First Sin Cycle Illustrated: Othniel delivers Israel from the Mesopotamian domination (3:7-14)

Watch for the pattern that will unfold in seven repetitions through chapter 16. First, note the sin that set the cycle in motion (3:7):

Judges 3:7 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.

• They did evil (3:7) – or they “actively performed works that dishonored God.”
• They forgot God (3:7) – they lived life on their own and didn’t walk with God deliberately and daily.
• They served Baals and Asheroth (3:7) – they diverted their devotion from God to better accepted expressions of religious fervor that were more publicly accepted by those around them.

When sin’s seed took root, the Lord responded. Note that His response was the distance they seemed to want. It is hard for people to understand that God is not pushy. He waits to be wanted. The sadness is that many live life without the understanding of how much they need Him. In our distance from Him, it is our life that withers; our vitality that slips away…

Now observe how their spiritual servitude of another was illustrated in physical bondage (3:8):

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 [j]Mesopotamia; and the sons of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years.

• The anger of the Lord was kindled (3:8). Don’t forget two important Biblical concepts we have studied in the past:

First, because God does something doesn’t mean we can justify doing it. God can boast, because the truth is that He is the highest and best – we cannot. He can be angry and respond with perfection –we cannot. Jesus could hang out with the dregs of society and yet not sin – we need to be very careful about thinking that licenses behavior on our part unless the Word explicitly invites that behavior.

Second, remember that emotional terms when applied to God often have very different meanings than when applied to men. God is not a man. He is also the only One Who is what He is. Every descriptive term applied to God needs to be examined as “God the One and Only!”

• He sold them into hands of foreign king (3:8). The “sale” on earth was a symbolic symptom of what their hearts already did. People were designed to serve God. Absent that truth, they will fill their hearts with the gods of fortune, fame, power or pleasure – and try to find solace in these others. Instead of freedom which comes from living out the truth, they will find the substitutes to invariably lead them into slavery.

Only when the world around us falls apart and our enslavement is apparent to us, do we begin to seek God for relief. In that moment, we don’t actually want God – just relief from the physical struggles. Yet, God listens and uses that broken heart as an opening…Watch for their cry or “supplication” to God (3:9a):

Judges 3:9 “When the sons of Israel cried to the LORD…”

Enter the strong hand of the Saving God. Note God’s rescue, deliverance or “salvation” (3:9b-11):

Judges 3:9b”…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 [k]Mesopotamia into his hand, so that [l]he prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim.

The outcome of God’s hand is a time of rest from the struggles. As God’s rescue stabilized the people, they experienced national security and stability (3:9b-11):

Judges 3:11 Then the land had rest forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died.

Security can easily lead us to complacency about our walk with God – even though the security is derived from our walk with Him. Watch as the forty years of peace gave way in a new “slide” away from God (3:12-14):

Judges 3:12 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 [m]defeated Israel, and they possessed the city of the palm trees. 14 The sons of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.

That’s the pattern, and it will be repeated six more times:

cycles of sin• Sin: walking outside the expressed commands of God’s Word.
• Servanthood: invariably sin leads to a penalty of enslavement and bondage, a heightened insecurity.
• Supplication: the bondage leads even the hardened believer to cry out in pain and promise to walk straight!
• Salvation: the Lord responds to the call of the wounded heart, in an effort to teach us His faithfulness – even in our disobedience!
• Security: the people enjoyed a time of national freedom and external stability.
• Slide: the problem is, when relief comes, we slide back to old habits.

In the end, there is a clear and unmistakable truth that Godly leadership in national life brings peace. The lack of it produces increased tension and strife both at home and abroad. In addition, it should also become clear that Israel’s servitude of other nations was meant as an illustration of the loss of privilege of serving God!

How do I know that is what God intended us to grasp from this historical account?

That’s a fair question. The account is a history, and God uses history to teach us deeper lessons. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul spoke about Moses and the children of Israel coming through the heat of the desert grumbling and disobeying God. Paul made the specific point that” 1 Corinthians 10:11 “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.” If you intensively study the Word, it appears this is not an unusual feature of God’s use of history in the Biblical text.

Let’s look at it in this case…

First, remember the pattern teaches something important:

Cycle One: The sin of Israel started the problem of the first cycle of learning (3:4). Eight years of servitude to Cushan-rishathaim of Mesopotamia followed (3:8). The cry (supplication) of God’s people in 3:8, resulted in God providing Othniel, nephew of Caleb, to bring about 40 years of stability and security (3:11).

Cycle Two: The sin of Israel started the problem of the second cycle of learning (3:12). Eight years of servitude to Eglon of Moab followed (3:13). The cry (supplication) of God’s people in 3:14, resulted in God providing Ehud, son of Gera (3:15) and Shamgar, son of Anath (3:31), to bring about 80 years of stability and security (3:30).

Cycle Three: The sin of Israel started the problem of the third cycle of learning (4:1). Twenty years of servitude to Jabin of Hazor followed (4:3). The cry (supplication) of God’s people in 4:3, resulted in God providing Deborah and Barak (4:4-5:31), to bring about 40 years of stability and security (5:31).

Cycle Four: The sin of Israel started the problem of the fourth cycle of learning (6:1). Seven years of servitude to Midian chieftains followed (6:1). The cry (supplication) of God’s people in 6:1, resulted in God providing Gideon, son of Joash (6:7-8:27), to bring about 40 years of stability and security (8:28).

Cycle Five: The sin of Israel started the problem of the fifth cycle of learning (8:33-35). Three years of internal national servitude to Abimilech’s tyranny followed (9:1). The cry (supplication) of God’s people in 9:22, resulted in God providing Tolah, son of Puah (23 years) and Yair the Gileadite (22 years, 10:1), to bring about about 45 total years of stability and security (10:2-3).

Cycle Six: The sin of Israel started the problem of the sixth cycle of learning (10:6). Eighteen years of servitude to Philistines and Ammonites followed (10:7). The cry (supplication) of God’s people in 10:8 (cp. 10:14), resulted in God providing Jepthah (six years), Ibzan (7 years) and Abdon (8 years, cp. 12:7ff) as part of His plan to bring about 31 years of stability and security (12:7-14).

Cycle Seven: The sin of Israel started the problem of the seventh cycle of learning (13:1). Forty years of servitude to the Philistines followed (13:1). The cry (supplication) of God’s people in 13:1, resulted in God providing Samson, son of Manoah (13:24ff), to bring about 20 years of stability and security (16:31).

It is clear, then, the cycles are quite consistent and offer the same picture over and over. One may extract from that pattern this is THE ONLY THING WE NEED KNOW to recognize the hand of God at work – and that would be WRONG.

Second, carefully identify how forsaking God was highlighted as the key reason for trouble and an end of internal and peace and external stability.

You see the terms “forgot” and/or “forsook” God at the beginning of each problematic time in places like 3:5-7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 8:33-35; 10:6 and 13:1. The physical bondage of God’s people was illustrative of their own choice.

That’s worth remembering. People often highlight “bad things” that happen to them, but not the choices about their walk with God that led to the circumstances. Very often, tough circumstances are symptoms of something more. Most often, they are unintended consequences of spiritual hardening. Others cannot see our heart, but we know that was often at the center of the problem if we have learned to be sensitive to God’s Spirit.

Third, note how Scripture identifies an example or leader as the pivotal issue in following God’s way.

Don’t neglect another important issue God wanted to be clear to the nation. Most every cycle from the second to the seventh began with a note of the leader or rescuer’s death. We read: “Othniel died in 3:11; Ehud “died” in 4:1; Gideon “died” in 8:32; Jair “died” in 10:5 and Abdon “died” in 12:15. If you follow the cycles, the death was linked to the forsaking of the people. Let’s say it again so we are clear: Godly leadership in national life brings peace. The lack of it produces increased tension and strife both at home and abroad.

If you are godly and engaged in leadership – your example matters. Your testimony may be holding back the enemy in the lives of your children and grandchildren. Your prayer is not wasted and your example is not superfluous.

It is clear that God intended the nation to recognize the need for leaders, the need to walk with Him, and the need to resist a slide into spiritual bondage that would end up in physical bondage. But there is a problem if that is all we learn from our study of God’s Word in this section.

Young followers in Jesus take the lessons of the nation and unconsciously transfer them to a formula: “Do right and get blessing.” By that, they mean blessings of peace and prosperity in this life. The Sunday School version of Judges can be reduced to this: “When the people walked with God, the Lord brought them peace.”

That’s fine in itself, but that lesson must be matched by other lessons in the Word to offer the whole picture, or we will fail to identify other ways God works with us. That “truth brick” must be fit into the wall with other truth bricks of the same value taught elsewhere. If we fail to place this vital lesson in the context of other places in the Word, we are likely to be frozen into a “give to get” mentality. Many believers end there.

They say: “Do you want prosperity and happiness? Simply obey God! It is a guarantee.” The problem is: if your prize is temporal – it may not work. That doesn’t always work, because it isn’t a whole picture, and it doesn’t measure things the way God does.

• With Job, God’s lessons to the angelic world were more important than Job’s comfort.

• With Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah God’s testimony through the men before the godless government was a more important agenda than their apparent safety.

• With Peter and John, God’s call for standing with Him, against the authorities that were calling them to abandon obedience to God’s call, was more important for the growth and testimony of the early church than the Apostle’s freedom of movement.

• With the first century carriers of the message of the Gospel, it was more important they showed absolute trust in God’s Word for the spread of the faith, then that their lives be spared.

• In the history of the church, a great many were martyred because God saw fit to increase the message of the church through the sacrifice of their lives.

Here is the mature believer’s understanding: Individual obedience doesn’t guarantee material peace and prosperity but does guarantee confidence and the sense of God’s presence as we follow Him.

Outcome-based thinking is about a “pay off” for the effort. Heaven becomes a “paycheck” for “good living” and obedience in cases like that. The problem is, the prize isn’t Heaven – it is unending time with God.

A more accurate way of looking at the truth is this: Obedience brings confidence in God’s continued presence with us. It bolsters our sense that He is guiding us as we walk through the darkness of a fallen world. The reward will be the full manifestation of the presence of God in a perfect and eternal habitation. It will be time enveloped in Him and surrounded by continual light.

What then, is the purpose of this record in Judges? There is a consistency of God’s Word in this regard: Whereas individual obedience doesn’t guarantee peace and prosperity – but rather the presence of God, collective national obedience seemed to do both. Nationally, the Bible is filled with examples of God’s call to His people to walk closely with Him (as a national entity) and receive a measurable series of blessings along with a sense of His presence.

Since we don’t really have “Christian nations” in this time, and since most of the history of the world has not had them, how does this lesson help us?

First, we have seen what happened when God’s Word was, to some greater extent, upheld as the basis of justice. Because our following of it was incomplete, so were the blessings of it. At the same time, how can one ignore the results?

Second, without a Christian nation, we are not fully exempted from the national plan of obedience. There are still things for which believers remain in charge. To that end, 1 Peter 2:9 appears to transfer the need to seek God among the “nation” of the believers, regardless of what the national entity under which you are living does.

These truths, then, set the tone for the rest of the study of this book. We “guard the paths” of the nation when we exemplify Biblical understanding, Godly justice, Spirit-filled compassion and holy fires of righteous desire as His people. When we apply that, we live it in the church, and lovingly persuade for it in national life where we are given opportunity.

• To be clear, we teach, study, examine and follow God’s Word in the church. Our main objective is not to attract the world by what we do, but to grow the believer and allow the attitudes and community produced by the results of that teaching in transformed minds to attract others. If we “lift up Jesus” by teaching and showing “Cross life” service and selflessness – others will be drawn.

• In public life, we can indicate the Biblical truth that “the works of the flesh” as enumerated in Galatians 5 bring about increased pain and peril to the cohesiveness of the community. We can show a sharp point to the contrast of the ethic of deliberate obedience (even with its human limitations) to God’s Word as a nation, and show how the increasing departure from those points have weakened the nation.

When the church is focused and growing and the world begins to feel the fragmentation is too great in their society, the soil becomes ripe for a revival of the land. Revival has been based in the past on the concentration of believers on two objectives: careful following of Jesus among the believers and confident testimony before the world. The final ingredient is the variable – the will of the Spirit of God. Again, doing right will give the church confidence and an inner sense of peace in God’s presence, not necessarily a revival. Careful obedience invites God to work in us and our national home while it offers the greater guarantee of His pleasing smile on our efforts. God is happy with His will done His way.

The prize of life isn’t material blessing, but a walk confident of the presence of God.

It is only in obedience and constant, deliberate surrender to God’s direction that we have enduring confidence about life’s circumstances. Troubles in such a life become opportunities to sit at the Master’s feet or cry in His arms. Victories become joyous occasions of dancing with the Master.

Can we not admit that we simply don’t understand the lessons of God in this life? Often we think God isn’t giving us what we need, when He is giving us all we need by standing beside us and walking through life with us.

I read recently the story of a 10-year-old boy who decided to study judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident. The boy began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training, the master had taught him only one move. “Sensei,” the boy finally said, “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?” “This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the sensei replied. Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training. Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament. Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals. This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger, and more experienced. For a while, the boy appeared to be over matched. Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened. “No,” the sensei insisted, “Let him continue.” Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him. The boy had won the match and the tournament. He was the champion. On the way home, the boy and the sensei reviewed every move in each and every match. Then the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind: “Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?” “You won for two reasons,” the sensei answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.” The boy’s biggest weakness had become his biggest strength. When he trusted his master and listened to his voice – he was able to attain victory.

• More than wealth, you want to walk with the Maker of all the things wealth can buy.
• More than fame in the eyes of the fallen world, you want your Creator to inscribe your name in His book.
• More than command of thousands, you want to hear the commendation of the One Who alone can say: “Well done, good and faithful servant!
• More than comforts of this life, you want to stand in Heaven at home with the God Who brought you to Himself.

Don’t focus on the mirage of now. The prize is there. The prize isn’t streets of gold. It is unending, intimate time with the God Who made you.

Here’s the good news. You don’t have to wait until you die to begin to experience a taste of the prize. You can invite God into your daily walk, your business meetings, and even your quiet walks in the woods. You may look alone to others, but you will know that you are not. You are nibbling at the prize that will one day be your total reality.