The Judges’ Failure of Leadership (Judges 9-16)
Gideon’s failures are intensified in the judges who follow. Gideon’s son Abimelech unites the people around him, but only by killing his seventy brothers standing in his way (Judges 9). Jephthah starts as a brigand, goes on to deliver the people from the Ammonites, but destroys his own family and future with a dreadful vow that leads to the death of his daughter (Judg. 11). The most famous of the judges, Samson, wreaks havoc amongst the Philistines, but infamously succumbs to the seductions of the pagan Delilah to his own ruin (Judg. 13-16).
What are we to make of all this for our work in today’s world? First of all, the stories of the judges affirm the truth that God works through broken people. This is surely true, for a number of the judges—Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah— are praised in the New Testament, along with Rahab (Hebrews 11:31-34). The book of Judges does not hesitate to point out that the Spirit of God empowered them to bring about mighty acts of deliverance in the face of overwhelming odds (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6-9; 15:14). Furthermore they were more than instruments in God’s hand. They responded positively towards God’s call to deliver the nation, and through them God delivered his people again and again.
Yet the overall tenor of Judges does not encourage us to make these men into role models. The burden of the book is that the nation is a mess, awash in compromise, and its leaders are a disappointment in their disobedience of God’s covenant. A more appropriate lesson to draw might be that success– even God-given success – is not necessarily a pronouncement of God’s favor. When our efforts in the workplace are blessed, especially in the face of adverse circumstances, it is tempting to reason, “Well, God obviously has his hand in this, so he must be rewarding me for being a good person.” But the history of the judges shows that God works when he wishes, and how he wishes, and through whom he wishes. He acts according to his plans, not according to our merit or lack thereof. We cannot take credit as if we deserved the blessings of success. Likewise, we cannot judge those whom we deem less deserving of God’s favor, as Paul reminds us in Romans 2:1.