The book of Joshua is, in most respects, a book of victories. While it is true that it does record at least one setback (remember what happened at Ai, Josh. 7:1ff), the book of Joshua is mostly characterized by victory as Joshua led the people of God into the land of Canaan. We read, “So the Lord gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it. The Lord gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers. And not a man of all their enemies stood against them; the Lord delivered all their enemies into their hand. Not a word failed of any good thing which the Lord had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass” (Josh. 21:43-45, emphasis mine throughout).
But with the death of Joshua and his contemporaries as the Bible transitions to the book of Judges, we find a drastic changing of the times. While Judges chapter 1 continues with the theme of more military victories for Israel during this time, we also begin to see a glaring problem: the Israelites failed to expel all of the Canaanites from the land. The times were good; prosperity was ripe for the taking, but unfortunately, with prosperity and with this glaring failure to expel all of the Canaanites, the children of Israel would descend into the darkest of times in their still young, independent history.
We read of this glaring failure in Judges 1:16, 19, 21, 24-36. Even if one argues that the decisions mentioned in verses 16 and 24-26 were righteous exceptions to the general rule of not allowing Canaanites to remain in the land (Moses had made a deal with the Kenites back in Num. 10:29-32; the Israelites also made a deal with a man who showed them the entrance to a certain city), there are still countless other Canaanites mentioned in this section of Scripture who were allowed to remain in Israel’s inheritance for no other apparent reason than Israel’s own laziness and contentment to not expend the effort to drive everyone out. The consequences for this inaction on Israel’s part would be tremendous. Thus, God informed Israel in Judges 2:3: “I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judg. 2:3).
Here we find the key to Israel’s aforetime successes: “So the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord which He had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:7). It is a few verses later that we find the key to the dark days that lie ahead for Israel: “When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:10). The changing of the times from good to bad would be so severe that two later passages describe the tenor of the day as follows: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). “In his own eyes” often meant cruel and unusual debauchery, far flung from any semblance of morality that God had shown them under the good leadership of men like Moses and Aaron, and Joshua and Caleb. Indeed, the times were dark, and the book of Judges would embark on a continuous cycle of sin: Israel being oppressed by her neighboring enemies, Israel crying out to God for help, God’s sending a deliverer (a judge) to rescue the people, the times improving again for a moment, and then the cycle repeating again as the people once again fell into sin.
A short look at the remainder of Judges chapter 2 and then chapter 3 will show just how quickly the nation of Israel descended into chaos once this new generation rejected the Lord. In chapter two, we find that the Israelites forsook the Lord and began to serve the idol gods of the nations around them, Baal and Ashtaroth (vs. 11-15). This was a great provocation against the Lord, characterized as a “hot” anger, resulting in the Israelites being delivered into the hands of “plunderers who despoiled them” and being “sold … into the hands of their enemies all around.” “They could no longer stand before their enemies.” “The hand of the Lord was against them for calamity…and they were greatly distressed.” It is in verse 16 that we find God’s mercy being revealed as He for the first time “raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them.”
Yet in an almost poetic turn of events, verse 17 immediately characterizes the Israelites in a bad light once again: “Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do so.” Verses 18 and 19 indicate that while the Lord’s judge lived, the Lord was with the judge, and would deliver the Israelites from their enemies. When the judge would die, the Israelites would again return to sin, to even worse degrees each time. “They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way.” Thus, God responded by not driving out the wicked people from among Israel’s midst, and the people continued to succumb to their wicked influence.
Beginning in chapter 3, we find out that God had a purpose for not utterly driving out the Canaanites Himself. He wanted to test Israel to see if they would do it themselves (v. 4). Israel utterly failed the test, and even gave the Canaanite children to their children in marriage (v. 6)! Unsurprisingly, “they served their gods.”
The rest of chapter three introduces us to the first three Judges that God sent – Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. It is interestingly of note in this section that the time periods of oppression were comparatively short for Israel (eight years and eighteen years of oppression, compared to forty years and eighty years of rest afterward, respectively). Perhaps this is a subtle clue to the bountiful mercy of the Lord.
What can we learn from Israel’s situation going from good to bad during the transition from Joshua to Judges? The lesson is simple. When a generation arises that does not know the Lord, only chaos, confusion and consequences will follow. The chaos of Israel was illustrated by rampant sin, the confusion was caused by misplaced allegiance to foreign gods, and the consequences were years of oppression at the hands of the same Canaanite nations that God had told Israel to utterly expel. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34).
Times are changing in our nation today (and not in a good way). When nations forget the Lord, only chaos, confusion, and consequences follow. I don’t think I have to point out to you that we are experiencing a rapid moral decline of our own in this nation. Like Israel (and Judah) of old, how long will it be before we find ourselves in the oppressive hands of other nations round about us? Christians, we must pray for mercy for our nation, and must do everything in our power to turn this nation back around!