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The men of Israel had sworn.
An unreasonable oath
1. It was an oath that flowed from rash rage rather than from real zeal. Men must swear in judgment (Jeremiah 4:2), not when transported with passion, as Israel was now against Benjamin; their fiery spirits stood now in more need of a bridle than of a spur.
2. It was an uncharitable oath, as it was against the repairing of a perishing tribe, which the law of charity bound them to support, and not to see it perish out of the land through the want of their helping hand.
3. It appears unlawful, as it crossed the revealed will of God in Jacob’s prophetical blessing upon this tribe (Genesis 49:27), and that of Moses also (Deuteronomy 33:12), both which prophecies had been spoiled had this one of the twelve tribes been extinguished.
4. The performance of this unreasonable oath was likewise bloody and barbarous, for by virtue of their oath their blind zeal transported them to destroy many persons in all those cities of Benjamin who had no hand in that foul act of the men of Gibeah. (C. Ness.)
One tribe lacking.
This inquiry represents the spirit of the whole Bible; that is all that I have to say. It is indeed not so much an inquiry as a wail, a burst of sorrow, a realised disunion, a shattered kinship. Israel was meant to be foursquare--twelve, without flaw, at every point a noble integer. Benjamin is threatened with extinction, Benjamin is not in the house of God, Bethel, a city literally, but a sanctuary spiritually, and Benjamin is outside. Men should not take these facts with indifference. I have no faith in your indifferent piety, in your piety that can allow any man to be outside, and never ask a question about him or send a message to him. That is not Christianity. From the first Benjamin was a little one, having only some thirty or forty thousand fighting men, a figure that went for nothing in the numbering of old Israel, and over a very delicate and difficult question he came into collision with the rest of Israel. He was alone, and after an almost superhuman resistance he was overborne, all but extirpated, and he went away and hid himself some four months in the rock Rimmon, the inviolable rock of the pomegranate, and there he took account of himself. How many am I? Thousands fell and thousands more; eighteen thousand fell, all men of valour, over against Gibeah towards the sun rising, and we are now dwindled into some six hundred men, and nobody cares for us, and nobody seeks us out. Wait a moment. Perhaps at that very time all Israel was saying, “Are we all here? All but Benjamin. And why is Benjamin not here? O Lord God of Israel, why is this come to pass in Israel, that there should be to-day one tribe lacking in Israel?” But you are eleven! Yes. What of one? What of one? “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, and one of them being gone astray, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go alter the one that is lost, until he find it?” Thrice repeated--that is the way of the dear old Scriptures. Whenever the proper name is repeated, the repetition is the sign of concern, solicitude, anxiety. “Martha, Martha”; “Simon, Simon”; “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem”--the same pathos. “O Lord God of Israel, why is this come to pass in Israel, that there should be to-day one tribe lacking in Israel?” We see from Bethel what we never saw from the battlefield. Until you have seen the world from the house of God you have never seen it. You have never seen man till you have seen him from the Cross. Keep up the Church. That is the specular tower that is the point of vision. Until you have seen the world religiously you have not seen it, you twaddling, tinkering, niggling reformer. Now you can look at this text as a sentiment, as a discipline, as an encouragement.
I. A sentiment. Why? Is not this the human aspect of the solicitude of God’s heart? In this respect as well as in others is man made after the image and likeness of God. In all such emotion there is a suggestion infinite in scope and tenderness, a suggestion of humility, family completeness, absolute unselfishness, redemption, forgiveness, reconstruction, everlasting joy, the gathered fractions consolidated into an everlasting integer. But you will have that lost man. And Paul, that marvellous compound of Moses and Christ, honouring the majesty of the law as he always did, yet feeling its weakness in the presence of sin, did he not tremble under the same emotion? He says, “I am in continual sorrow.” Great heavens! what is the matter? It is not enough for him that the forces of the Gentiles are moving towards the Cross, that from Midian, Ephraim, and Sheba men are rising to show forth the praises of the Lord. Not enough; what more do you want? “I could wish myself accursed; anathema from Christ and my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. My heart’s desire and prayer to God is that Israel might be saved. For see how the doves are flocking to the windows! I know, I know: beautiful! Thank God for it, but”--and who is it that speaks thus?--I would know this man. “I am of the seed of Israel.” What tribe? Ah, what tribe? Hush! You want music now--not the blare of the organ but the whisper of the harp. “Of the tribe of Benjamin.” Why, that is the tribe that is lacking in the text. Yes. Thus history rolls round in ennobled and amplified repetition and variety--evolution unimaginable in vastness and variety. He is of the tribe of Benjamin. In Judges all Israel mourns that Benjamin was lacking. In the Romans Benjamin mourns that all Israel is away. If you have lost your tears, you have lost your Christianity. The Bible varies a good deal in historical and even moral colour, but it never varies in pity, love, and mercy. From the first God loved man with atoning and redeeming love. We want all the genius, all the poetry, all the letters; we want them and welcome them all if they will be servants in the house of God, and help us in the expression of an inexpressible pity--a contradiction in words, a harmony in experience. I challenge you--graciously and lovingly--and I think you will not find one bare place in all the area of the Book. Let us try it. In Eden there is a promise; in the wilderness there is a tabernacle--a mercy-seat. In Genesis there is “a covenant.” In Malachi there is “a book of remembrance.” In Exodus “the Lord keeps mercy for thousands, and forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin.” In Numbers there will be nothing! Yes, in Numbers “the Lord is long-suffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression.” Why, what more could He do on Calvary? And that in Numbers, which you thought a bare place. In Judges, “the Lord is grieved for the memory of Israel.” In Samuel, when the avenging angel had gone forth He recalled the angel, and “let the lifted thunder drop.” But Chronicles--they will be all details, annals, and a field for the higher critics rather to pull to pieces. There will be nothing, I think, in the Chronicles. Will there not? In the Chronicles, God says, “If His people will seek His face and turn away from their wicked ways, He will hear them from heaven. He will forgive their sins. He will heal their land.” And as for the Psalms. What need we say of them, or of Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel? They are golden with the love of God. In Hosea God heals the backsliding of His people, and loves them freely. Even James, a man without poetry, a church without a spire, wrote his letter to the twelve tribes--twelve. They were scattered abroad--but no scattering can kill the household of faith. Now is it possible for any tribe to be lacking, to become extinct? Where, for example, is the tribe of Dan? It disappeared beyond record in the 1st Chronicles, and is not named in the Apocalypse, but its few thousand members amalgamated with some other tribe, say, with this very tribe of Benjamin. Yet even in the Apocalypse the number of the tribes is twelve, twelve foundations, and twelve gates of twelve pearls. And we may be absentees, but God’s house shall be filled. Now that is the text as a sentiment. A great moan, a most tender, passionate, evangelistic feeling.
II. This high feeling has also a disciplinary aspect, and therefore there is a whole field of complete and ardent loyalty. When Deborah sang her triumphant song she disclosed the sterner aspect of this case. She mentioned the absentees by name, and consigned them to the withered immortality of oblivion. “Why should there?” said that mother heart, “why should there have been one tribe lacking on that day of the battle? Why?” “Reuben remained among the sheepfolds” and listened to the bleatings of his flock when he ought to have answered the call of the trumpet, and helped to repulse the nine hundred chariots of Sisera. “The Lord will have hold of him yet.” Why was he lacking on that day? Oh, he was preoccupied; he sent promises, but he remained at home among the flocks when he ought to have been serving with the army. And some are criticising the sermon who ought to be out saving sinners. Oh, these prior engagements, these domestic excuses, these parliament and council and other engagements that prevent our being at the war. And Gilead abode beyond Jordan, and Dan was concealed in ships, and Asher peered from behind the creeks and wondered how the war was going on. Is it not so with you? Do not hinder your fellow-soldiers if you cannot help them. Any fool can do mischief. Stupidity can sneer at enthusiasm, and we may remain away from the battle. Do you think that is going to interfere with the success of these great evangelistic movements and missionary movements? There is another variety, oh, very singular indeed! There is a lacking, or an absence, which affects great indignation because it has not been sent for. Do you know nothing about that? You do! They stand back for a space, that they may see whether they will be missed. You have heard of these men? They say, “We are just waiting to see whether a circular will be sent to us. One has been sent next door, and we are simply waiting to see.” You are not! You are grieving the Spirit of God. Now, there was a band in old Israel who tried this trick in three instances, but I think the third was the last. Once Gideon overthrew the Midianites, and held in his one hand the head of Prince Oreb and in his other hand the head of Prince Zeeb. The Ephraimites chided him severely because they were not sent for--they would have been very glad to have held somebody’s dead head in their hands. It was the trick of Ephraim. They tried it once upon the son of the harlot of Gilead. Ephraim said to Jephthah, “When thou passedst over to fight against the children of Ammon, why didst thou not call on us to go with thee?” One can be fully valorous the day after the fight, and when all is dead and gone they say, “Why were not we sent fort” And Jephthah was a bold and plain-spoken man--base-born, but he could not help that--but the Spirit of the Lord was in him, and the wrath of the Divine fire burned in his bones, and he said I will tell you. “Ephraim, hear me; I did once send for you, and you did not come. You did not come, and now that you are trying this stale trick upon others I will put an end to you, at least to a considerable extent,” and that day he choked the passages of the Jordan with the carcases of forty-two thousand Ephraimites. So there are two kinds of lacking--a lacking that excites pity and emotion and compassion, and a lacking that excites indignation. Find opportunities. Be on the alert for chances. Watch; thou knowest not when the enemy may come, or the Lord. Be faithful. Remember that Christianity is a battlefield as well as a contemplation and doctrine. Is the whole fighting strength of the Church on the field? Are any enjoying delights of civilisation who ought to be taking part in the war?
III. Now, we are looking at it as a discipline, but we may look at it next and finally as an encouragement. Some are no longer in the battle, yet they are not lacking in the sense of the text. They are not here--they are here. Even the mighty David waxed faint. He was but seventy when he died. When I say “but seventy” do I not speak carelessly? What a seventy! When he tottered under his weakness in one of his closing battles he nearly fell. In one of his closing battles there was a Philistine who had a sword and was pressing the king most heavily, and it was going badly with King David. The Philistine was hard upon him; hard upon him who slew the lion and the bear and the giant of Gath; hard upon him who made Jerusalem rich with the golden shields of Hadad; and the royal captains rushed to falling David and got around him and said, “Thou shalt go out with us no more to the battle, that they quench not the light of Israel,” and they stood up as iron might stand, and to the foe they said, “God save the king,” and to David they said--they whispered--“You shall not go with us any more to the battle, that they quench not the light of Israel.” Henceforth he was to be lacking, yet not lacking. My dear old septuagenarian or octogenarian, or whatever your age may be, no more to the battle. We would not say that to the enemy; but you shall go out to no more wars; you shall still be with us; you shall pray for us and help us in the Council Chamber, and give us the benefit of your rich experience; but no more to the battle. No, my old friends, we still have you, you are with us as reminiscences, examples, memories, inspirations. “I look round my table,” says one and says another; “my boys are not with me as they used to be. I miss them. They used to go with me to the village chapel, but they are lacking now. O Lord God of Israel, why is my son lacking? He is taken up with a language I do not understand. I was trained very simply, believingly, in the great redeeming truths of the gospel, but he talks to me now in a language I cannot understand, and he no more sings the old hymns and goes to the dear old house of prayer.” Lacking! Have you brought no word for me this morning? Yes, I have a word for you. He may return. He is going through a very difficult process now; you know your son is a very prosperous man, and prosperity takes a good deal of chastening in order to remain pious. But he may return. I will tell you how he may return. He will have a little child, and she will be the delight of his heart, and when she is about five or six she will sicken, and in the deep dark night she will say to him, “Father, give me one long, long kiss,” and she will pass away; and he will look round for some of his books. They will have nothing to say to him, and he will alight upon an old, old book, and he will read, “And Jesus called unto Him a little child”; and he will read, “Suffer little children to come unto Me”; and in secret and in darkness he will drop on his knees at the bedside, and angels will say, “Behold he prayeth.” Adversity will do what prosperity cannot do. Loss will be gain. So he may return. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.--
Confusion and misery through want of orders
A visitor was once standing at a friend’s door. He knocked, and knocked; but there was nobody to open. Perhaps no one was at home? Oh, yes; there was a noise within, which plainly showed that more than one or two or three were there. Again he knocked, and waited; then at last a servant came. “She was very sorry, but she had been with the children who were all quarrelling.” This, then, explained the noise. Sounds of crying and anger were now heard from a room upstairs, while a little fellow ran forward to welcome the visitor. “Why, what’s the matter?” “Oh, sir, father and mother are both out, and it is so miserable!” “How so?” “Why, we are all left to do as we like; there is nobody to manage us!” This was strange, was it not? Doing “as they liked” seemed to bring nothing but disorder and misery until father came home again! Now, I do not know whether those parents were wise and careful or not, or whether they could have done better with their family than to leave it so. But I know that at one time the people of God, dwelling in the promised land, were left by Him very much as those children were left. This was perhaps partly a punishment for their wilfulness and sin. They had thought they could manage for themselves very well, and now God let them try. Then there was wisdom and kindness, too, in thus showing them that they needed the care and power of a wiser, mightier One than they. (S. G. Green, D. D.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Judges 21". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20