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Bible Commentaries
Judges 4

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-24

Deborah and Her Song

Judges 4:0 , Judges 5:0

THE fourth and fifth chapters bring into view quite a host of secondary characters, such as Jabin and his chief captain, Sisera; Deborah and Barak; Heber, and Jael his wife; and in the great song of triumph and judgment names come and go with flashes of colour full of history and criticism. Sometimes we are told of a song that the words are nothing the tune is everything. That may be a happy circumstance as regards some songs, but that criticism has no place in reference to the Song of Deborah; it is all words, all thoughts, all spiritual music. This song has in it something more than tune. If we do not know the words we shall never understand the music. Poor is the singing in which you cannot hear every word; it is then but a performance, it is but a vocal trick; we must hear every word, every syllable, every sentiment, and judge whether the music is worthy of the great intellectual conception. It is so with the Song of Deborah. We shall find in it words as well as tune. Jabin, king of Canaan, had held Israel in oppression twenty years. Jabin had resources which astounded people who lived in the hill country. Among the mountains chariots were no use; the bow and arrow were everything, but the chariot could not be driven over a craggy steep or unfathomable abyss. Jabin had nine hundred chariots of iron, and he made the plain of Esdraelon tremble as they rolled along. People who peeped down out of the crags, and saw the nine hundred chariots rolling in the plain of Jezreel, thought Jabin a mighty king, and obeyed his behest with meekest submission. Do not blame Jabin for oppressing the children of Israel twenty years. Jabin did not begin the oppression. Do not let us ruin ourselves by looking at second causes, and pouring out our denunciations upon the king of Hazor in Canaan. He, like many other poor kings, had nothing to do with it except instrumentally. There is but one King. It pleases us to call men kings and rulers, but there is only one sovereignty; the Lord reigneth, and there is room for none other; his throne fills the universe, and his kingdom ruleth over all. Jabin was an unconscious minister of God. Many men occupy that relation to Heaven who are not aware of it. The Lord has many servants at his threshold: he maketh the wrath of man to praise him; he finds music in strange places, and brings all kinds of instruments into the band that plays the music of his purpose. No doubt, Jabin thought himself a great man over Israel lord and ruler and oppressor. Probably he counted Israel among his riches; in adding up his little store he put Israel down at a plain price, and said, "Israel is mine, and is worth so much in the coming and going of things." He did not know what he was talking about The reason why Jabin had anything to do with Israel was that Israel had done "evil in the sight of the Lord" ( Jdg 4:1 ). It is putting the case too lightly to say that Israel "did evil in the sight of the Lord." That might have been a first offence, and twenty years' penal servitude under a king without a harp, was a heavy sentence for a first violation. But we have missed the explanatory word. How often we do this in reading the Scriptures! How prone we are to leave out the key-word, and thus create confusion for ourselves! The text literally reads, "And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord." How great the emphasis which ought to be laid upon the word "again"! It may not mean a second time or a third time; it may be the thousandth time for aught the word "again" says to the contrary. Israel did evil upon evil, as if building a black temple with black stones, and purposing to consecrate it to the service of the devil. Twenty years' servitude was a small penalty. God did not plead against Israel with his great power when he sentenced Israel to this period of oppression and sorrow. How readily we look at the oppression and forget the sin! This is characteristic of human nature. We pity the sorrow; we would even count the tears of human distress, and make a great number of them, and turn that number into a plea for Heaven's mercy. We are wrong. We have started the argument from the wrong end; the point of view is false; the perspective is out of line: the whole vision suffers from wrong drawing and colouring. We have nothing to do with the oppression. We must look at causes. We must say, How did this come to pass? and in answering that inquiry we shall vindicate Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men. We are moved more by the oppression than by the sin. That is a test of our own spiritual quality. Men are more frequently annoyed than they are wronged. Many men suffer more from an assault made upon their self-conceit than an assault made upon the proofs of eternal righteousness. Hence men resent what are termed personalities, whilst they look benignantly, if not approvingly, upon sin in the abstract violated law that hurts the vanity of no man. All this is indicative of character. Here we see what Sin really is. It binds the sinner to his outrages against God; it endeavours to modify its own force and gravity, and it seeks to turn attention to outside matters, accidents, passing phases, and temporary troubles. Were we of God's mind and of Christ's heart we should dwell upon the evil, the evil twice done and twice repeated, and continued until it has become a custom a custom so established that the repetition of it brings with it no new sensation. But we will look at accidents and circumstances, rather than probe into real causes, profound and true origins.

A new period dawned in Israel. Deborah the wife of Lapidoth was judge. Great questions are settled by events. There was no inquiry as to whether it was meet that a woman should be a judge. Israel needed a mother, and Deborah was a mother in Israel. If we make questions of these subjects, we shall entertain one another with wordy controversies: but when the true Deborah comes, she comes of right, and sits a queen, without a word. There is a fitness of things a subtle and unchangeable harmony and when its conditions are satisfied, the satisfaction is attested by a great content of soul. As Deborah sat under her palm-tree in Mount Ephraim, no man said: Why are we judged by a woman? The answer was in her eyes: she looked divine; the vindication was in her judgment: when she spake, the spirit of wisdom seemed to approve every tone of her voice. There is a spirit in man: he knows when the right judge is upon the bench; the poorest listener can tell when he is in the presence of Justice; the unsophisticated heart knows when attempts are being made to quibble and wriggle and misrepresent, and to substitute the jingle of words for the music of righteousness. The people came up to the famous old palm-tree, and told their tale to Deborah day by day, until the motherly heart began to ache, and her trouble was very great. She saw, as motherly eyes only can see, how the wrinkles were deepening, how the faces were not so plump as they used to be, how strong men were bending under invisible burdens. She said: By the help of Heaven we will see more clearly into this. A hundred miles away in the north there lived a man, Barak by name "Barak," which is, by interpretation, "the lightning" and on Barak Deborah fixed her heart as on the hope of Israel. She sent for him; but he said No. She said in effect, You must come. But he said in reply, You do not know the case as a soldier knows it; Jabin has nine hundred chariots of iron, and the plain of Jezreel seems to have been made into a way on purpose for them to roll in; if it were Jabin only, I might attempt the task, but think of nine hundred chariots of iron! Deborah said, You must come, for the time has arrived; Heaven's hour of deliverance has struck; and I look to you to espouse the cause of Israel. Barak said, No, I cannot, except on one condition. Deborah said, Name your terms; what are they? Then replied Barak, My terms are that you go along with me. Instantly she said, I am ready to go. And Deborah, a mother in Israel, became the soldier of Israel, and Barak was her humble servant. The news soon spread. Sisera was on the alert. This was the very thing he had been longing for. When a man has nine hundred chariots of iron he wants something for them to do. Kings who have standing armies are bound to create occasions of war; hence the injustice, the turpitude, the hellishness of battle. Sisera was the chief captain, and the nine hundred chariots of iron were under his direction, and he said, Now Esdraelon shall tremble under this weight of iron, and Israel shall be crushed as a fly upon a wheel. "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh" at them, and laugh again at their chariots, though they be iron in quality and nine hundred in number. The chariots of the Lord are twenty thousand, yea, thousand of thousands. The battle is the Lord's, not ours. But the Lord will not loose his chariots upon Jabin and his nine hundred curricles. There is a river on the field of battle, Kishon by name, quite a little silver threadlet in summer, but soon swollen by tributaries from the hills; and a river once getting charge of a plain makes swift work in its progress. The rains had fallen, all the hills seemed to pour out their treasures of water, the stream expanded, the water burst and flowed over the plain, and the nine hundred could not move. They were overcome by water! Kishon was more than all Jabin's iron host. Then came awful doings men slaying one another. As for Sisera, the captain of all the iron chariots, he fled ran away like a hound that had seen a tiger, and pantingly he came to a woman's tent, and said to Jael, the wife of Heber the Canaanite, Can you give me shelter? What are nine hundred chariots when the Lord is against them? What are all the chariots of the earth as against the sea? They could be sunk in the Atlantic, and the great ocean not know that they had descended to its depths. Jael said, Come in. And Sisera went in to come out no more. "The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is my son's chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots?" At that moment Sisera was lying in the tent of Jael with an iron nail through his head. Sisera had chariots of iron Jael had but one nail, but the hammer must have been God's. There is no defence of Jael's conduct. Viewed in the light of our morality, it was base in and out bad, corrupt, horrible. As she walks softly, the softlier, the deadlier, and takes the nail and the hammer, she is the picture of incarnate depravity. This we say, unless there be some law which takes up all our laws and moves them into greater meanings through infinite orbits. There are greater laws that take up all our local movements and relations, and set them in new attitudes and invest them with new values; but of these laws we know nothing, and it is right that we should speak frankly about the ancient morality as represented in the action of Jael, and that Christian teachers should condemn it within the limits which are known to them. A woman began the war and a woman ended it, judging by the literal history. The inspiration of deliverance was a divine inspiration. Wherever there is a movement towards freedom, that movement began in heaven. Wherever any oppressed man, conscious of his sin and penitent for it, lifts himself up in an attitude of independence and looks his oppressor in the face with a calm determination to be free, there is a distinctively divine act. God is the God of liberty. He permits slavery or uses it, and may sanctify the use to higher issues and advantages; but beneath the oppression, below all the trouble, there is that spirit which is akin to his own, which asserts itself and says: I cannot always live under this cloud, or carry this weary load; I will be free. When such a word is spoken reverently, solemnly, honestly, it is neither more nor less than the living voice of the living God.

Now Deborah sings. She seems almost to excel Moses in song. There is hardly such a piece of composition in all known literature. It has everything in it. This is a manifold song. Some persons have points of power, individual faculties of notable strength; but this woman seems to have all human faculties, and all human faculties in their largest proportions. She praises the people for their willing offering of themselves ( Jdg 5:2 ). She recognised the spontaneous action of the people; they wanted to be free. She also regards kings as occupying a subordinate position: "Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes" ( Jdg 5:3 ). They had to receive the news, not to create the event; they had to hear of it next day, not to plan it the day before. Who can tell the ways of Providence? God setteth up the poor amongst princes, he plungeth the princes down into meanest places; the first shall be last, and the last shall be first God shall have the record and the register written, and rewritten and redistributed, so there shall be no vanity in Israel, no conceit in the hosts of Christ. There is, too, a tone of judgment in the song. Deborah could not forget who had forsaken her on the day of trial. She said: Reuben was not there "For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart." Reuben abode among the sheepfolds, and listened to the bleating of the flocks, and let the woman go out alone to fight the chariots of Jabin. "For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." Gilead was not with me; he "abode beyond Jordan": Dan was not with me; he "remained in ships": Asher got behind the creeks and the crags, and peeped out, and then withdrew: "Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field." So Deborah makes mention of severe troubles even in the roll of her triumphal song. She did not confuse things. She was not so lost in enthusiasm and transport, as to forget whether Reuben was present, and Gilead and Dan; nor did she neglect Zebulun and Naphtali. This woman's song is reason set to music, judgment in rapture yea, say in rhapsody, but judgment still, awarding to the good that which is good, to the evil that which they deserve, and thus setting forth in song a picture of the ultimate and final judgment. Meroz was cursed even in song. Why? Meroz was in the heart of the country; Meroz might have struck the first blow, and Meroz did nothing: "Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty." The Lord might have been torn to pieces for aught that Meroz did. The winding up of all things shall be a great song, a triumphant burst of music; but moral distinctions will not be forgotten in those jubilant strains. Then it will be known who did his duty, who remained at home, who was content with criticism, and who hazarded his life that his Christ might be made more widely known.

Selected Note

The song of triumph which was composed in consequence of the great victory over Sisera, is said to have been "sung by Deborah and Barak." It is usually regarded as the composition of Deborah, and was probably indited by her to be sung on the return of Barak and his warriors from the pursuit.

Deborah, the prophetess, was wife of Lapidoth. She dwelt, probably, in a tent, under a well-known palm-tree, between Ramah and Bethel, where she judged Israel ( Jdg 4:4-5 ). This probably means that she was the organ of communication between God and his people, and probably on account of the influence and authority of her character, was accounted in some sort as the head of the nation, to whom questions of doubt and difficulty were referred for decision. In her triumphal song she says:


Almighty God, we would rest in thee. Thou hast welcomed us to thy rest, and made us, in promise, sharers of thy feast. The Lord will bless his people with peace, yea, with peace that passeth understanding. Thou dost cause men to possess their souls in peace and confidence when they look unto the Lord and set their expectation eagerly upon him. We have said unto our souls, Look unto the hills whence cometh your help: your help cometh from the Lord which made heaven and earth. Thus the heaven and the earth have become images to us of thy greatness, wisdom, goodness, and continual superintendence; and thus through heaven and earth we have found the living God who made them both. All things tell of thy power, and all things sing of thy love. Why should man be silent? His should be the loudest, sweetest voice of all. Let the people praise thee, O God; yea, let all the people praise thee; let the time of silence now past more than suffice, and let the time of singing, and rejoicing, and testifying, come in upon us like a new year. Truly thy mercies deserve our songs. We will sing of mercy, and of judgment: for is not thy judgment a mercy? and is not thy mercy a judgment? art thou not continually looking upon us through the cloud, and blessing us every day with sunlight? We would join the innumerable company of angels in praising God. We would think of the great host in heavenly places joining the hymn of adoration and thankfulness; we would unite in the great and solemn praise, and be as glad as earth will permit its children to be amid its night and winter and cold. We praise thee for a day that is all thine own: the four-and-twenty hours are four-and-twenty jewels; we bless thee for a house that is all thine own, built upon a sure foundation, rearing itself towards heaven, excluding all profanity, offering hospitality to all necessity; and we bless thee for a book that is all thine own, written as it were with thine own finger, having in it gospels from heaven infinite as the love of God and grand as his glory: may we have the seeing eye, the understanding heart, that, beholding the writing we may comprehend the meaning, and then proceed to live it over again in useful and happy life. We desire that our religious aspirations may grow in number, in intensity, in loftiness; may our whole character be lifted up by their energy, so that our citizenship may be no longer upon earth, but already in heaven. Thy care of us, who can doubt? The very hairs of our head are all numbered. If for a moment we distrust thee, it is that we may pray some nobler prayer, because of contrition and the heart-break of penitent sorrow; if we have turned from the Lord, we will come back again, renewed, stronger than ever in faith, tenderer than ever in love. Oh heal our backslidings, and love us freely. Thou knowest our life, for thou didst make it. We do not know what it is. We suffer it, and are afraid of it; for a moment we enjoy it, as we might enjoy an angel's presence, but all our joy is troubled by a distant and speechless fear, and we say, This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven; and our pulse is as the beat of God's eternity within us. Help us through our life to know somewhat of thine; enable us to know through our hearts somewhat of God's love: then shall our life be profitable, and shall help itself to higher uses because to higher devotion. We pray for one another. The Lord's blessing be upon us every one. Thou hast a portion of meat for each in thy house; thou wilt not send any empty away; if our hunger is great, thy resources are greater still. Blessed are they that hunger: behold, our very necessity is turned into a blessing; our capacity to receive is the measure of our capacity to enjoy. O that we might praise the Lord every day that we might know that all our time may become sabbatic, restful a period of peace, an anticipation of everlasting tranquillity! Help us to live out the few more days that remain: they come and go so quickly we can hardly number them; between the sunrise and the sunset there is so brief a time, hardly an opportunity to breathe. May we know the measure of our days, and knowing that, may we redeem the time, buying up every opportunity eagerly, and using it as a trust from heaven. Guide all who need special guidance. Show men where the lock is they cannot find, and when they have found it and cannot open it, put the key into their hands. Send light upon those whose way is wrapped in darkness. Speak a word in season to him that is weary; show the weeper that his tears are but for a time and may be the precursors of joy. Help those who are called to carry the burdens of others, who think about them until they are weary until their wonder becomes a distress, and their solicitude an intolerable pain. We pray for those in trouble on the sea. We pray for those in trouble because of bodily weakness. We pray that in houses where Sorrow has long been the one guest he may this day flee away. As for our sin, we bring it to the cross: the blood of Jesus Christ is the answer of God to the sin of man. Help us to believe in Jesus, to trust in the Son of God, to give up all hope in ourselves, and to find all satisfaction in Christ. Amen.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Judges 4". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/judges-4.html. 1885-95.
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