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Bible Commentaries
Judges 4

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-3

Judges 4:1-3

Israel again did evil . . . the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin.

Reappearance of vanquished foes

Their ancient foe, whom they had conquered, rose gradually from his prostration. He rebuilt his castle; he repossessed the lands; he multiplied his armies. At length he defied and “mightily oppressed” the chosen people. How has this history been re-enacted a thousand times in the experience both of individual believers and of Christian Churches! How many there are who answer to the description (1 Peter 2:20). The Canaanite was slain, but he reappears and resumes his ancient tyranny. Exploded errors revive. Slain heresies live again, and triumph on the very spot where they received what was deemed their death-blow. The subjugation and prostration of the Church may not be as complete as was the twenty years’ slavery of Israel under the second Jabin, yet is not the fortress of Hazor being rebuilt in this land? Are not the furnaces of Harosheth being rekindled? And are not the Papal workmen busy fabricating chariots of iron wherewith anew to scour the plains which valiant Protestants of old won in the name of the Lord and of His truth? (L. H. Wiseman, M. A.)

Verses 4-11

Judges 4:4-11

Deborah, a prophetess . . . Judged Israel.

Deborah: woman’s attribute

1. Amongst the women of the Bible Deborah stands out in great prominence, though we know but little of her character. She is one of those who show forth a distinctive characteristic of women--the power of contrivance and design carried out to such an extent as to make some doubt whether her acts were within the limits of religion and morality.

2. Deborah seems to have been a kind of oracle in the unsettled state of things that existed among the Jewish tribes; her advice was attended to and her voice followed by leaders and by armies with the most implicit devotion. Her parallels are many, both in Scripture and history. We are irresistibly reminded of one whose spirit once bore up the flagging energies of France in the annals of the latter, of Judith in those of the former. One circumstance strikes us as highly significant. Starting up close beside her was the kindred spirit of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Though not strictly answerable for the act of Jael, she nevertheless celebrated that act as one of her objects of gratulation in her magnificent hymn.

3. We must view her in two lights. She was of course under a heavenly inspiration, as well as under the guidance of a strong natural character. In the former capacity she is simply to be viewed as one of those instances in which God chooses to show forth His power through the weak things of this world, and to bring about great national crises through the instrumentality of the weaker sex. But placing this view of the subject aside, I will consider her in reference to her natural character and ordinary position, as a woman in the midst of vast and depressing circumstances rousing by the vigour, boldness, and freshness of her character, the flagging energies of men. We see this in many instances of life, public as well as private. How remarkable and almost miraculous it is that the wife, who shares the anxious cares of the husband, be he labourer or mechanic, is able to keep up her spirit and to hope to the end! How often would the man, who has had to contend with the waves of constant trouble, succumb to increasing difficulties; and how many a crisis of difficulty, in connection with illness, accidents, or the like, in the domestic circle, calls forth the presence of mind of the mother, when the father would shrink from the difficulty, and lend no hand to help. Nor is it only this power that is felt so beneficially in the cottage as well as in richer homes. The eye that sees a brighter day and that pierces the fast rolling clouds of present adversity, perceiving the glow of a brighter morning when “the tyranny will be overpast,” is especially the eye of woman. One other attribute of woman which comes out in Deborah’s story is the deep impression that her mission was Divine, and that the instincts of nature were the gifts of inspiration. There is that spirit in the weaker sex which, in the moment of high crisis and difficulty, would often justify the impression; but this spirit is the gift of God for a special purpose, and is a substitute for those bolder and more persevering qualities which belong to the stronger sex. There are many periods, both in private and in public life, which need rather light shed by a ready and present mind than the steady beam of the more enduring fire. From the lack of it we may miss the object of our life’s search. It is the want felt in such conjunctures as these that woman supplies; she bears the lamp of the midnight; and sometimes when with weary watching other lamps have gone out, hers is trimmed.

4. Such is woman’s prerogative, such her peculiar characteristic. For though Deborah may be an exaggeration in a remarkable crisis of the characteristics of her sex, they nevertheless exist in more or less force in every representative of it. It is seemingly paradoxical, but no less true, that women should have the power of meeting imminent danger with a calmness and perseverance often denied to man. Let them view these gifts as the direct ordering of Heaven, and, while they glory in them as their heritage, let them cultivate and improve them as the talents committed to their trust. (E. Monro, M. A.)

Lessons from an old story

1. In an age and a season of perpetual unrest, how refreshing is it to the spirit to have before us the example, albeit in a remote past, of one judge who could dwell under the palm-tree between Rama and Bethel, and to whom the children of Israel could go up for judgment. If the right kind of men, a few of them, could be set free to think, to advise, to originate, to counsel, what a gain would this be to a people laden with care, full of intellectual and spiritual perplexities, and feeling themselves terribly alone in their difficult and embarrassing way. For lack of this many lives go utterly astray, and many minds are wrecked on shoals and sandbanks of doubting. It might be said that the two offices of action and thought are only kept distinct in the present state of things, and that those who want counsel have no lack of help from an innumerable crowd of writers. Unhappily the thinkers are too often too much isolated from action, so that they run into vain and profitless speculation, having neither help for this life nor hope in that which is to come. It is the combination which helps: the judge sitting under the palm-tree, but Israel coming up to him for judgment. The moral of it all is, busy men, snatch moments for reflection! let no day be quite without it!

2. We see the true place and dignity of woman here in the positive and in the negative. Deborah was a prophetess. God spoke to her. She saw within and beneath the appearance of things. She did not allow the visible to crush out the invisible. She was not appalled by the nine hundred chariots of iron. She knew that there was still a God in Israel who rules in the kingdom of men, and though He bears long with evil, and sometimes sets up over nations the basest of men, He can yet be called on by prayer, and in the long run will make it to be well with the righteous. In a great emergency she became an influence; she called Barak to her, set him his task, assured him of his commission, and even consented at his request to accompany him on his march. This was heroic, but it was also feminine. Deborah did not assume the command of the army; she was the influence, she was the inspiration, but she left the leadership and the generalship to another. Not for nothing have we the record of another woman on the same page with that of Deborah. We shrink instinctively from the bloodstained hand of Jael. She has overstepped the line between the feminine and the masculine--nay, between the enthusiast and the fanatic. The excitement of victory might draw forth the impassioned cry even from one of the male sex, even from one of God’s utterers, “Blessed above women”; but that cry has never found even an echo in evangelical hearts; that cry has given trouble and pain to champions of revelation. We cannot receive it as the voice of God’s Spirit, except in some modified and softened-down form, in which it hails, and justly hails, the victory as a victory of the cause of the monotheistic idea as against the polytheistic; as a victory of the cause of progress, of the cause of development, and therefore in some sense the cause of mankind and of the world.

3. One last thought occurs, and it might seem at first hearing to conflict with the foregoing; but it is not so. Deborah says to Barak, “Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded?” And he replies to her--a woman--“If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go.” She rejoined yet again, “I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” We are not concerned with the last phrase--“God shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Scripture readers see the hand of God every-where--go so far as to say, “Shall there be evil in the city, and the Lord hath not done it?” We ask what was the point, what was the characteristic, the differentia in the faith of Barak, that the Epistle to the Hebrews should single him out for mention? And we find it here in the self-forgetfulness of Barak in doing God’s work. What if one woman set him on it, and another woman is to finish it? What if the journey he took was not to be for his own honour? Shall that stop him? What will the troops say if they see a woman marching by his side; see him consult her about his tactics; hear him confess that she is his monitress and his inspirer? Shall that thought deter him? No. He has God’s cause in hand; God’s honour, not his, is the thing to aim at. Here is faith forgetting itself in the cause. It is a grand heroism; for lack of it much good work is spoilt and much forborne. There is a phrase which more often disguises than precludes the self-glorifying. Humble instruments all call themselves; yet the same modest disclaimer asserts the instrumentality. Propose to omit the name from the subscription list or the list of patrons, where will the humble instrument be then? “The journey which thou takest shall not be for thine honour.” No, for one woman suggested it and another woman shall complete it. What then? Faith is willing to have it so; for faith is the sight of the invisible, and this arrangement will show the Invisible, the Doer. (Dean Vaughan.)

The duty of woman to women

It is a suggestive and on the whole perhaps a creditable fact that heroic women are not so interesting to women as to men. We read about that German prophetess who roused her people against the invaders from Rome, or about Joan of Arc, who, simple peasant girl that she was, communing with mysterious angels’ voices (as the legend runs), kindled the French nation against the English dominion when princes and statesmen had well-nigh given up the cause; or we read about Deborah, like St. Louis under the oak at Vincennes, sitting under a Judaean palm, not with downcast eyes and folded hands and extinguished hopes, but all on fire with faith and energy, with the soul of courage and the voice of command, and we are constrained to pay homage to her daring and her fearlessness, to her strong will and her unshrinking purpose. But if I were to ask any young girl whether she were ambitious of such a career, there is not one in a score who would say so. A woman’s idea of happiness and usefulness ordinarily centres in a home. We have been accustomed to hear the constantly reiterated assertion that “woman’s sphere is the home.” I confess for one that in view of the actual facts of society, as they exist around us, there is often in such words a sound of cruel irony. Do not you and I know, that there are thousands of women to whom a home is as impossible a thing as a castle in Spain? Do we not know that there are thousands of young girls who have no human being but themselves to depend upon, and who must somehow make their way and earn their own bread in life? Will you tell me how a home or anything else than a room and a hard, stern struggle for life is possible to these? We have now reached a point in the social progress of this age when it is necessary that we should every one of us recognise the crisis that is upon us. A much larger number of women must hereafter support themselves than have ever done so before. There are some callings from which, as it seems to me, women must for ever remain shut out. Any calling which requires conspicuous publicity, masculine activities, and out-door leadership is not, I venture to submit, for a woman. For one, I should not care to see her hanging from a yard-arm, driving a steam-engine, digging in a coal-mine, or vociferating in congress. But when we have eliminated from the question those occupations from which healthy self-respect would restrain any really womanly woman, there remain a vast range of employments on which women have not yet entered, but for which, nevertheless, they have singular and supreme qualifications. Already women have acquired the science of telegraphy, and they are, of course, more expert in it than men can possibly be. Women are already training themselves to be phonographic reporters. And here again their peculiar aptitudes are a pre-eminent qualification. Why should they not oftener provide for them an honourable maintenance? It is a curious and scarcely known fact that in the middle ages, the daughters as well as the sons in a family often inherited and carried on the family art or handicraft. When one goes to Nuremberg, or Prague, or Heidelberg, he will find bits of wood carving, artistic work in metal or stone, which no modern hand can pretend to rival. How are we to explain this earlier perfection? Simply on this wise: the calling of the father was the calling of the children. Exquisite workmanship was a hereditary trait. “Among goldsmiths the daughters executed chasing, among furniture-makers carving, among stone-masons sculpture, among engravers drawing and graving.” Could there be more pleasing or wholesome employment of one’s best aptitudes? It is time that every woman among us, and especially every young girl with culture and influence and social power, should awaken to the needs of her own sex. What Deborah was under the palm-tree at Mount Ephraim every brave and true-hearted woman is called to be in the service of as holy a cause and as precious interests. We call Deborah a prophetess, and so she was. We regard her as somehow separated by her rare natural endowments and her exceptional inspiration from the other women of her time, and so she was. But in a very real and a very living and lofty sense every woman is a prophetess, with a prophet’s gifts and a prophet’s calling. For what are prophets’ gifts but that Divine insight, that swift and heaven-born intuition, which is your rarest gift, your loftiest endowment? Shall I be opening an old wound if I say that it was a woman’s voice and pen that, more than any other, roused this land to the evils and the cruelties of slavery? and as truly I believe they must be women’s voices that must waken us men to the cruelties of that other servitude in which too often and too widely the weak of your sex are to-day oppressed. Do not, then, be afraid to lift your voice in any good cause that aims to elevate women to equal chance and equal respect and equal emolument with men in the great struggle of life. Be, each one of you, a Deborah to cry to some slumberous and sluggish Barak, “Up and do the Master’s Work, in the spirit of the Master’s example!” (Bp. H. C. Potter.)

If thou wilt go with me, then I will go.


It was very natural that Barak should desire the presence of Deborah. She was a woman of natural influence, possessed of sagacity, able to read the signs of the times. As it has been said the best definition of a fool is a man who is wise too late, so the best definition of wisdom is wisdom at the right moment; and she possessed that wisdom, and understood what was the proper occasion when it was desirable to strike the blow for freedom. Her intellectual powers had made her influence great among the people; difficult cases were brought to her; her knowledge and her sagacity had won its way and established its influence in Israel. But it was not only natural; there was a certain appearance of piety in the profession. Deborah was not merely one of those persons whose gifts give them a high dominating influence over their fellow-beings, but she was believed by the people to be inspired by the breath of the Spirit of God. And, therefore, there was in their view a certain sanction of the Divine power which came, as it were, from her lips. Was it not, then, because he regarded her as the Divine representative that he said, “If thou wilt go with me I will go”? May we not argue further, and say precisely, because she was the one person in Israel at that time in whose words you could trace the meanings of the Divine Spirit, therefore was it not an attitude of the spirit of piety which would say, “I Cannot undertake this expedition alone; I must be assured of the presence of the prophetess of the Lord”? Is there not piety in the resolution, “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go”? And yet, it is necessary for us to try and understand the motive before we declare whether it is good or bad. “If thou wilt come with me, then I will go.” In what strain ought a man to face the obvious duties of life? Is it true that we are always to wait for the assistance of others, or are we bound to do what lies before us, regardless of the sympathy we may receive? The message sent by Deborah was an emphatic message, “Go there with ten thousand men, and I,” says the voice of the Lord, “will draw thy adversaries to the river Kishon.” There is not the slightest hint or any suggestion of condition; it is a plain, simple, and absolute order. The hour is come; the blow is to be struck; it is your duty to do it; here are your instructions. You know the class of persons who are never able to do any duty without the assistance of others; you know the schoolboy who always does his work when he can get his sister to stand beside him; you know the class of man who is always reluctant to quit with company and undertake any irksome duty by himself. He is not the character which impresses us as possessing strong, marked, or admirable lines. You want some one more determined and self-relying. If a duty has to be done, in the name of that duty, and in the name of your God who gives you that duty, do it like a man, and do not stop to make conditions which betray your weakness, and say, “If this condition be fulfilled, if I am assisted by the presence of another, then I think I can do my duty, but I do not think I can face the frowning face of duty alone.” I say this is a character which does not possess the highest order of self-reliance. It is also an answer which betrays slackness and feebleness of life. By the very law by which Israel was then governed, by the law of that very religious sentiment which had been operating in the minds of the chosen people, one thought was predominant in all their minds, “The Lord is the God of Israel.” It is the realisation of the Divine presence, and that alone, which marks the higher range of faith; the power to say, “I will go in His strength because He sends me, and I ask not Deborah to go with me to jeopardise her life; she has her work to do and I have mine to do, and the God who inspired her can make my hand strong.” But what was the result? As a fact the victory was won; but you know how truly the scorn of Deborah burst forth when she received the conditions of Barak, “If thou wilt go with me.” “Then let it be known that the laurels of this victory are not for thy brow. If thou hast thought that only with a woman at thy side thou canst face the crowning hour of battle, those honours which you would boast are reserved for a woman. The Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Barak sinks down into the second place in the story, and the opportunity which might have been his was snatched from his hand, as in the hour when he was tested he betrayed weakness. What, then, should we gather from this? The enormous and measureless importance of self-reliance in every affair of life. Life is a constant movement from companionship into isolation. As I pass through the road of life I have to determine certain questions, and I must determine them by the law of my own existence and my own conscience as in the sight of God. Over and over again we are bound to have that experience. We think we have others to help us in certain matters, but the final decision rests with us. Does it not mean that in the purposes of God we are to be taught self-reliance? Sometimes we are told that Christianity is deficient in the virile virtues. That is only because we have misunderstood the story. What is the story of the Redeemer? Is it the story of one who relied so completely upon others that by a dexterous adjustment of His teaching to the wants of the day He was able so to establish His ascendancy over others as to be able to bring forward a community willing to be called by His name? That is the very reverse of the genesis of Christianity. (Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)


Every human being has influence, which is a part of himself, and helps to make up his personal being. And as long as he lives it goes out from him to others, for weal or for woe. Nay, more; it is not limited to time. Once having lived, it never dies. For the individual may go down to the tomb and perish; but his influence shall go on evermore.

We are accountable for our influence. This is evident from the very nature of influence. What is it? It is power; the power of one will over another. This power and authority go forth from us to others in various ways--in speech, by action, by the glance of the eye, by the expression of feeling, by the show of passion, by the play of the countenance, by the motion of the hand, by our dress, our habits, our style of living, and our conduct. And now I ask--if I cause a man to do an act, am I not responsible, i.e., so far forth as I lead him to do it? Of course I am not to bear the entire burden of his conduct, for he is a man as well as I, and he is bound to think and judge for himself. But if I am the stronger, more controlling character, and use my influence to guide him astray, and start him on his way to ruin, surely I am responsible for what I do. But it is manifest that this principle is not one that is local, partial, or limited. It is a broad, general, universal principle; pertaining to souls under all circumstances. And see how it reaches our fellow-creatures on every side, with awful significance and tremendous power. I am responsible for my influence; I am held accountable by the Almighty for the way in which I affect and prompt the souls of my fellow-men. Then I am responsible for my influence upon you. Then you are responsible for your influence upon me; and each and every one of us is responsible for the influence we exert upon our neighbours. Then we are responsible for the channels by which our influence goes forth from us to others. And we are responsible for their outflowings; and though the influence of a man differs somewhat, in kind, from his specific acts, yet the law of Divine justice comes in here, with the same force and authority as in any outward deed.

The measure of our responsibility is proportioned to our influence. Herein lies our stewardship. We are stewards of God in the particular item of influence. A little girl is beloved by her schoolmate; and so great power has she over her, that that schoolmate will do anything she wants her to do, good or bad. She is responsible for her control over that child’s soul, and to God. They are both responsible for the power they possess, the one over the other. Here is a man in a community, of such commanding power, whether through wealth, talent, or character, that everybody quotes him as authority, and aims to follow in his track. As sure as God liveth, He will hold him responsible for his popularity and his power.

Influence is an awful, a perilous thing when it assumes the form and proportions of mastery and control. And this is often the case. The mass of men, the world over, are governed by opinion and example. Imitation, too, is a most powerful agent in deciding the convictions and habits of men. No doubt it is God’s will that certain prominent men should have authoritative influence; that is their calling; to that they are elected by the Almighty Himself, to the end that they may help to quicken inferior wills, and to decide human destinies. Thus in the family relation the words of a father or mother go with children to mature manhood, and may descend to children’s children. How in our school-days our hearts have become knit “as with hooks of steel” to companions whom we have loved as Jonathan loved David, with a “love passing the love of women.” I have myself seen men moving about through a nation, after whom millions of men flowed as with the mighty current of a torrent; and when they spoke, momentous questions were settled, as though decisive utterances had come forth from an oracle or a god. But the illustrations of this controlling influence of men is as common in the lowlier spheres of life as in the higher. Sometimes a grand, noble parent serves his generation and blesses it, and then sends down the crystal purity of his honour and the odour of his sanctity to children’s children. Sometimes it is the reverse, and the alcoholic blood and the alcoholic breath of a drunkard triumphs over the dominion of the grave, and reaches over a whole generation of men to his descendants, poisoning the atmosphere and polluting society by the sottishness of sons and grandsons. (A. Crummell.)

Is not the Lord gone out before thee?--

A sermon for the new year

Wherever we may be called upon to go, our Lord has gone before us.

We are entering into darkness. God is light. What does it matter what we see, or whether we see at all, if He has seen and known that the way is safe?

We are entering upon uncertainty. But all things are fixed and ordered by God’s power, and from knowledge.

We are entering upon difficulty. God is almighty in power.

We are to meet with pain and death. God cannot die. Learn:

1. To distrust all human help and consolation.

2. To trust in Him who is so well able to do for us, and to be to us all we need.

3. To implicitly follow and confidently resign ourselves to His leadership. (Homilist.)

Verses 18-24

Judges 4:18-24

Jael went out to meet Sisera.

Life’s crises

Emphatically are we reminded that life continually brings us to sudden moments in which we must act without time for careful reflection, the spirit of our past flashing out in some quick deed or word of fate. Sisera’s past drove him in panic over the hills to Zaanaim. Jael’s past came with her to the door of the tent; and the two as they looked at each other in that tragic moment were at one, without warning, in a crisis for which every thought and passion of years had made a way. Here the self-pampering of a vain man had its issue. Here the woman, undisciplined, impetuous, catching sight of the means to do a deed, moves to the fatal stroke like one possessed. It is the sort of thing we often call madness, and yet such insanity is but the expression of what men and women choose to be capable of. The casual allowance of an impulse here, a craving there, seems to mean little until the occasion comes when their accumulated force is sharply or terribly revealed. The laxity of the past thus declares itself; and on the other hand there is often a gathering of good to a moment of revelation. The soul that has for long years fortified itself in pious courage, in patient welt-doing, in high and noble thought, leaps one day, to its own surprise, to the height of generous daring or heroic truth. We determine the issue of crises which we cannot foresee. (R. A. Watson, M. A.)

Jael and Sisera

“What then!” might we, upon the first cursory perusal of this narrative, be inclined to exclaim. “Has the all pure and all holy Jehovah belied His unspeakable attributes, has He laid aside His thunder, and renounced those direful visitations which, by the mouth of His servant Moses, He had threatened against the wilful shedder of man’s blood? Why are the rights of hospitality, so jealously hedged in, in the Mosaic law, and so sacredly observed in many previous instances (as in the preservation of his guest by the besieged Lot and the sparing of the Gibeonites by the deceived yet forbearing Joshua), why are these rights, here first, with impunity violated?”

The whole of the Canaanitish nations had long since by their idolatrous iniquities and abounding profligacy and wickedness, merited the condemnation and fiery wrath of Jehovah, which had indeed been denounced against them unambiguously by the mouth of Moses on the other side of Jordan in the wilderness. No one who has read the intimations of their guilt in the Book of Leviticus can question for one moment the justice of the Almighty in blotting them from the face of the earth. Jabin, king of Canaan, trusted in the number and weight of his iron chariots, and in the almost countless host of his armed men. The God of Israel designed, therefore, to humble him to the dust by scattering his forces before the resolute assault of but a few ill-equipped Israelites, while He would sell the mighty leader of all this armament into the hands of a weak and unarmed woman. Thus would He teach the rebellious nations to “put not their strength in horses, nor in the sons of men,” but to fear and reverence the one true and only God, the Lord of lords, and King of kings--the fearful God of Sabaoth.

The Scripture narrative simply details the progress of these wonderful events for our warning and exhortation, but not necessarily for our example. It would be as reasonable to assert that, because in the book of God’s revealed truth we read of the cruelty of Saul and the transgression of David, that therefore we are to imitate them in their wickedness, as to infer from this history of the slaughter of Sisera that hence treachery is allowable. Jael’s conduct, like that of the unjust steward in the parable, is commended to our notice--not for imitation, but for warning. (F. F. Statham, B. A.)

The defence and example of Jael

If Jael received Sisera into her tent with the intention of murdering him, she must be left to the execrations of posterity. But there are, we think, plain and straightforward reasons from which to infer that Jael had no design of killing Sisera--that she acted, therefore, with perfect honesty, and not with atrocious duplicity, when she offered him shelter. What likelihood is there that Jael proposed to murder Sisera? He was not her enemy, for there was peace between her husband’s family and the Canaanites. She had nothing to gain by his death; and if she had, she needed only to refuse him a shelter. The enemy was in pursuit, and would quickly have overtaken the fugitive. Had she wished his death ever so much, she had nothing more to do than to leave him to his fate. He was a doomed man, and there was no necessity that she should endanger herself to ensure his destruction; for let it be well observed that the killing of Sisera was a most dangerous undertaking for a lonely woman. Whatever account may be given of her subsequent conduct, the only candid construction to be put on this part of the narrative is that Jael was thoroughly sincere in offering an asylum to Sisera--that it was not with the language of deceit, nor in order to cloak a bloody purpose, but simply in truthfulness of heart, and with the earnest desire of succouring a distressed man, that she invited the fugitive into her tent, covered him with a mantle, and refreshed him with milk. “Nevertheless,” you will say, “she killed Sisera; whether premeditated or not, the murder was committed. What is to be urged in extenuation of so barbarous a deed? “ This brings us to examine by what motives Jael was instigated, or on what principles she acted in putting to death her slumbering guest. We reckon it a satisfactory explanation of her conduct, and one which removes every difficulty, that she was led by a Divine impulse, or in obedience to a Divine command, to take away Sisera’s life. She had probably acted from her natural feeling when offering shelter to the fugitive and giving most hospitable entertainment. We only think it a kindly part that she should go out to meet Sisera in his distress, and endeavour to shield him from further injury; but when the deep slumber was on him there came an intimation to Jael, I cannot tell you how conveyed--but certainly in such a manner as that there could be no doubt of its origin--an intimation from God that her guest must die, and that, too, by her hand. And if such were the case, again we remind you that nothing but a Divine command will explain a Divine approval. If such were the case, we challenge you to find in all the annals of Scripture a mightier display of the power of faith than was exhibited by Jael. What if Sisera should awake just in time to discover and defeat the murderous design! It was likely. He seemed indeed in deep sleep, but fresh as he was from battle, his brain must have been full of confused imagery, and the least noise must startle him as though his foes were at the door; and she having but a woman’s hand and a woman’s strength--shall she dare to attempt the nailing the sleeping warrior to the earth? Will not her courage fail her at the most critical moment, when there is enough done to arouse Sisera, but not to overcome? Besides, why must she be the executioner? There was little probability that Sisera could escape; in a short time the pursuers would arrive, and then the fate of Sisera could be sealed without her interference, We will believe that thoughts such as these crowded into Jael’s mind; we can believe that it was a moment of terrible perplexity when she felt that she had received a commission from God, and considered the fearfulness and the peril of its execution. There must have been the natural shrinking from the shedding of blood; there must have come the cutting reflection that Sisera was her guest, and that she was pledged to his defence; there must have been dread of his revenge if she should betray her cause in its execution; but the faith of this woman triumphed over all that is most calculated to confound and dismay her. There is yet another question, which will, perhaps, suggest itself to your minds as full of great importance as those already considered. You may, perhaps, now be disposed to allow the great probability, if not the certainty, that Jael acted on a Divine command, conveyed to her after Sisera had been admitted into the tent, and you may on this account acquit her of any charge of treachery or cruelty. Then you will ask, how it could be consistent with the character of God to issue such a command? Since murder is a crime which is expressly forbidden, with what propriety could He enjoin its perpetration? Now, just think! No one would have felt any surprise had Sisera perished in the battle. He was the oppressor of the Lord’s people: what marvel, then, that he should be overtaken by vengeance? Thus also with the Canaanites; their wickedness marked them out for extermination, just as did that of the unbelief of the world before the flood came; so that if in place of employing the sword of the Israelites, God had employed a deluge, or a pestilence, we should not have had a word to say, but must have admitted the justice of His ridding the land of those by whom it was profaned. And could either Jael or the Israelites be charged with murder in performing by Divine command a just though severe action? They were only the executioners of a righteous sentence: could they on that account contract guiltiness? Why, when the law of the land has condemned a man to death, who thinks of charging the executioner with murder, because he is instrumental in executing the penalties of that law? Indeed, he has not actually invaded and rifled the sanctuary of life, as a midnight assassin who steals on his victim, and leaves him weltering in his blood; but because a competent authority has directed him to inflict death, he is no murderer, but only an obedient servant of the State when he takes the life of a fellow-man. And now having vindicated Jael, we shall not hesitate to go further, and hold her forth as an example which it should be your endeavour to imitate. We do not merely mean that having displayed strong faith, and obeyed the law, when obedience was beyond measure difficult, she has left a pattern to be followed by all who are summoned to special difficulties and sacrifices in the service of God; over and above this, the case of Jael and Sisera has a peculiar similarity to many--yea, even all--amongst yourselves, who are required by God to inflict death where they have offered hospitality. Yea, if it be the Scriptural demand that we “crucify”--“crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts”--oh, then, there is vast similarity between our own ease and that of Jael. We too must put to death the enemy whom we have cherished and received. We too must determine that we will act the executioner where we have been the patron and the host. We too must be ready to strike down that which we have embraced, and pierce that which we have admitted not only into the tent, but into the heart. (H. Melvill, B. D.)

Jael, a type of the unscrupulous helpers of a good cause

Long has the error prevailed that religion can be helped by using the world’s weapons, by acting in the temper and spirit of the world. Of that mischievous falsehood have been born all the pride and vainglory, the rivalries and persecutions that darken the past of Christendom, surviving in strange and pitiful forms to the present day. If we shudder at the treachery in the deed of Jael, what shall we say of that which through many a year sent victims to inquisition, dungeons, and to the stake in the name of Christ? And what shall we say now of that moral assassination which in one tent and another is thought no sin against humanity, but a service of God? Among us are too many who suffer wounds keen and festering that have been given in the house of their friends, yea, in the name of the one Lord and Master. The battle of truth is a frank and honourable fight, served at no point by what is false or proud or low. To an enemy a Christian should be chivalrous, and surely no less to a brother. Granting that a man is in error, he needs a physician, not an executioner; he needs an example, not a dagger. How much farther do we get by the methods of opprobrium and cruelty, the innuendo and the whisper of suspicion? Besides, it is not the Siseras to-day who are dealt with after this manner. It is the “schismatic” within the camp on whom some Jael falls with a hammer and a nail. If a Church cannot stand by itself, approved to the consciences of men, it certainly will not be helped by a return to the temper of barbarism and the craft of the world (2 Corinthians 10:4). (R. A. Watson, M. A.)

Sin slain

If the story of the world’s sufferings under different tyrants could all be written, there would be no man found who would be capable of reading it. I believe that even the despots themselves, who have committed the atrocities to which I refer, would not be sufficiently cold-blooded to sit down and read the account of the agonies which their own victims have endured. I have been struck in passing through many lands with the horrible sufferings which in the olden times were endured by the poor at the hands of the rich kings and lords who were their oppressors. In almost every town in which you enter, you either have shown to you the rack, the dark dungeon, the thumb-screw, or the infernal machine, or instruments too horrible to describe--that make one’s blood run chill at the very thought and sight of them. Sin has brought more plagues upon this earth than all the earth’s tyrants.

First let us try to picture The sinner growing uneasy under the yoke of his sins, and planning a revolt against his oppressors. It is said that when a man is born a slave, slavery is not near so irksome as when he has once been free. You will have found it, perhaps, in birds and such animals that we keep under our control. If they have never known what it is to fly to and fro in the air from tree to tree, they are happy in the cage; but if, after having once seen the world, and floated in the clear air, they are condemned to live in slavery, they are far less content. This is the case with man--he is born a slave. Until the Spirit of God comes into the heart--so strange is the use of nature--we live contented in our chains; we walk up and down our dungeon, and think we are at large. It is one of the first marks of Divine life when we grow discontented and begin to fight against sin.

And now we have the second picture--the sinner having gone to war with his own sins has, to a great extent, by God’s grace, overcome them; but he feels when this is done, that it is not enough, that external morality will not save the soul. Like Barak, he has conquered Sisera; but, not content with seeing him flee away on his feet, he wants to have his dead body before him. Rest not content till the blood of thine enemy stain the ground, until he be crushed, and dead, and slain. Oh, sinner, I beseech thee never be content until grace reign in thy heart, and sin be altogether subdued. Indeed, this is what every renewed soul longs for, and must long for, nor will it rest satisfied until all this shall be accomplished.

I stand at the door to-day, not of a tent, but of a tomb, and as I stand here I say to the sinner who is anxious to know how his sins may be killed, how his corruption may be slain, “Come, and I will show thee the man whom thou seekest, and when you shall come in, you shall see your sins lying dead, and the nails in their temples.” Sinner, the sin thou dreariest is forgiven, thou hast wept sore before God, and thou hast cast thyself on Christ and on Christ alone. In the name of Him who is the Eternal God I assure thee that thy sins are all forgiven. Further--dost thou ask where thy sin is? I tell thee thy sin is gone, so that it never can be recalled. Thou art so forgiven that thy sins can never have a resurrection. The nail is not driven through the hands of thy sins, but through their temples. The spear that pierced the Saviour’s heart pierced the heart of thine iniquity; the grave in which He was buried was the tomb of all thy sins; and His resurrection was the resurrection of thy spirit to light and joy unspeakable. God forbid we should ever glory in sin, but it is a theme for joy to a Christian when he can look upon his sins drowned in the blood of Jesus. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

Jael’s deed

When Jael received him, she did so no doubt in good faith, nor had she heard of his overwhelming disaster. She would be only too ready to afford shelter to the proudest warrior of those regions. It is not unlikely that while he was sleeping she began to reflect upon the strangeness of his being in a condition to need such succour, and that from fugitives and others passing by she learned the story of that eventful day. She found that it was no longer a victor, but a baffled and helpless fugitive, who lay in her tent. She probably had a dim idea also of his character, as an enemy of the God of heaven whom the Israelites worshipped. A sudden impulse seized her; she would despatch him as he lay. Was he not the worst of oppressors? Did he deserve to live? Besides, the cries of the pursuers already echo through the mountains, and their weapons flash amid the foliage. The wretched Sisera is too exhausted to offer a dangerous resistance. She enters the apartment and strikes him. He staggers up; then in a swoon he falls at her feet. An iron tent pin, to which the cords of the tent were fastened, is in her hand, and a mallet. She drives the iron pin through his temples into the earth, with a blow given in the superhuman strength of frenzied excitement. Then voices are heard in the forest. The pursuers have come up; it is Barak himself (Judges 4:22). The whole story appears perfectly natural; nor is there any need for the supposition of Jael acting under a Divine impulse or a special Divine commission. Her act was dictated as much by self-interest as by any other motive. It was a moment of wild excitement, and cannot be judged by the rules of our peaceable and decorous time. If in the great Indian mutiny we had heard of Nana Sahib having been entrapped and killed by some wild woman of a wandering tribe, the public opinion of England would not have scrutinised too closely the morality of the action, in its joy at being rid of the most infamous of murderers. It is, in fact, the eulogy pronounced by Deborah which has constituted the difficulty. And a difficulty it must always remain to those who believe that every word uttered by those who of old had the name and rank of prophets is a direct utterance of the Divine will. The difficulty, however, disappears if we view the splendid ode of Deborah as being included by the guidance of the Spirit of God among the records of His ancient Church, and as expressing the feelings of an Israelite patriot of that day. The holiest and most devout of the Church of that age would respond to Deborah’s language. Whether such sentiments would be appropriate in our own day is not in question: we believe in the doctrine and in the fact of progressive light. (L. H. Wiseman, M. A.)

Verse 20

Judges 4:20

Thou shalt say, No.

Thou shalt say, No

A human being has his destiny, in some measure, in his own hands, depending on his own voluntary determinations. We cannot define exactly the limits of the province of free-will, but that it has a province, and an important one, all consciousness attests. It is true that man, like the animals and the vegetables, is subject to those laws of his being which he had no choice in enacting, and to the outside influences which he does not invite, and they must needs go far towards deciding his character. But not exclusively. He can enact laws for himself, impose actions upon himself, and, what it is our business to consider now, he possesses a certain qualified, but real veto-power. He can, to a large extent, not suppress, but repress and hold in check, some of the laws and tendencies and demands of his own nature. And he can, in a degree, reject outside influences and solicitations, push them aside, defy them, avert them. He can veto them, can say “No” to them. And according as he says it, and says it on right occasions, says it promptly, decisively, he maintains the splendid self-sovereignty of manhood. A brave, frequent, and absolute exercise of the veto-power with which he is endowed, is one of the fixed conditions of success and honour in the world, of self-respect and dignity of character, of harmony with God and the happiness of life.

The exercise of this supreme power in reference to the tendencies and inclinations within one’s self. There are tendencies and appetites in every man which, if allowed a free course and full swing, would drag him in the mire and hurry him to his ruin. The meanest of them has slain its thousands. So mean and paltry an appetite as that for stimulating drink counts its victims by millions, and our nature is largely made up of such dangerous proclivities, some inborn and some acquired. There is in man, also, a certain inscrutable, central authority, the mysterious Ego, the indefinable “I myself,” whose office is to watch over these necessary but dangerous members of the internal commonwealth, and keep them to their limits, and say, “No” to each and all their demands for undue power and over-indulgence. No man can live at all without exerting this power at some points; and no man can live nobly, and to the highest purposes of his being, without exerting it constantly, at all points, and with absolute supremacy. In the biographies of all persons eminent for character and achievement, you will notice how they have striven to acquire perfectly this form of self-mastery. What ingenious devices and shrewd practices they have resorted to, to this end. In some ages, what fasts and penances and seclusions and all forms of asceticisms, and in all ages what vigorous efforts, what watchfulness, and what contrivances and habits of self-discipline, whereby they might be able with promptitude and effect to say “No” to any tendency that is getting too strong, and any desire that is too clamorous! And success in that is their salvation, the open secret of their success in their high aims, and the glory of their lives.

The circumstances and events around us. These are very powerful, seemingly irresistible often. They claim to take full possession of a man, to carry him whither they will, and make of him what they will. They seem to say to him, “We are a part of the irresistible order of nature; we move according to the eternal laws; we represent the forces of the universe; we come backed by the omnipotence of the Creator. What can you, poor, puny mortal, do in resistance to our overwhelming might? A pitiful speck of being as you are, an evanescent bubble on this vast sea of matter and force, what is there for you but to drift whithersoever we may carry you, and sink where we drop you?” But not so, thou majestic universe, bearing upon man as you do with all your infinite might in the events and circumstances around us--not so! The soul in man, that mysterious essence, whose very existence you bring into question, is in its rightful province a match for you, can resist you, set you aside, say “No” to you, and in the ethereal, Godlike power it is endowed with, and with the humility of a little child, make good its audacious defiance. The brave but wary seaman knows the tremendous power of an adverse wind, a power that nothing can withstand, knows it and respects it, yet he is master of the situation. He can anchor in the roadstead, and look the very hurricane in the face, and let it blow. He will not budge. He can wait. That force will be spent before his will be. He will yet lay his course right along the pathway of the storm, and he does, and makes his voyage triumphantly. Or in another ease he refuses to drift with it. He will move right on against the opposing force, and never stop a moment, nor furl his sails; he must beat, go zigzag, tediously, but he gets on against it, and if need be, he will make the entire Atlantic voyage without one favourable breeze, with hard struggles but no yielding, delayed but not defeated. So in all human life. The power of circumstances must be respected, and dealt with valiantly but warily. The true man will accommodate himself to them, and yet refuse to drift with them; nay, will circumvent them, outwatch them, and make them serve his purpose. They may delay him, but not turn him back; discourage him, but not pluck heart of hope out of him. They may change his direction, but not stop his progress. They may change the form of his duty, but cannot hinder doing. They may combine to tempt and assail his integrity or purity, but if he say in God’s name, “No!” they cannot touch it.

It is most practical to consider the exercise of this veto-power in refusing the requests of other persons. There are always about us those who ask us or propose to us to do things that we ought not or had better not do. And such is the strength of the social tie, and so potent the influence of another’s desire, that there is always a disposition to comply, and an amiable disposition it is in itself. But it is often very misleading, and sometimes fatal to honour and integrity, to purity and peace and every sacred interest of life. Many a youth and many a man, not depraved, but simply weak and unestablished, has thus been led to his ruin, out of mere good-natured compliance and the difficulty of refusing a solicitation. Balancing between good and evil, with the promise and possibility of the best, he has gone to the bad, because he could not, or felt that he could not, say, “No!” The dangerous tendencies that are in him, and that are in everybody, acquire tenfold power when reinforced by the importunity of a friendly companion to join him in giving way to them. That little off-hand suit, “Come along,” coupled with the suggestion, “What’s the harm?” or “Who will know it?” or “Just this once,” or “Don’t be a coward,” we cannot tell how many it leads astray every day, initiates in the downward path, and that too when every instinct of the conscience, every sentiment of honour, every affection of their heart, and every hope of their lives, is breathing its protest, and would hold them back. If all those hesitating consents could now be recalled, that fatal compliance reversed, and it should be as if the rightful refusals had been spoken in place of them, what blessed results should we see. Oh, learn betimes to say, “No!” when you know you ought to say it. Fear not the sneers of the evil-disposed, the corrupt, or the merely thoughtless, but fear rather the anguish and tears of those who love you, the strings of your conscience, and the displeasure of your God. Be prompt and strong to say, “No!” when you ought, and your better nature bids you, and so march on through your career in safety, honour, and peace. And it is not only to the solicitations or the suggestions that would lead us in fatal directions, into enslaving vices, or the outright sacrifice of truth, honour, and purity that we need to exercise this great prerogative of downright refusal in the thick of this our social city life, we have need to exercise it daily, and almost hourly, in respect to requests and invitations that have no bad intent, but are meant in courtesy and kindness, and that in other circumstances, and at other times, might be complied with in all propriety. We need, on moral grounds, to guard with some jealousy our personal independence, and let nobody unduly or unreasonably invade it. We cannot afford to hold ourselves, our time, faculties, thoughts, or even sympathies, entirely at the beck and call even of the best people or of the kindest-meaning friends. That high independence which never hesitates to say, “No” whenever and to whomsoever it should be said commands respect. It is a chief element of all nobleness and strength of character. It is essential to feminine dignity, and to the highest manhood. It makes you worth seeking, and causes your refusals to be better taken than the loose assents of those facile persons who from sheer weakness in the fibre and the making up of their character can never say, “No!” or say it as if guilty of an offence and fearful of your displeasure. (George Putnam.)

Thou shalt say, No

Here is one of the shortest words in our language; yet there is none which persons of an easy and yielding disposition find it so difficult to pronounce. To say it, however, is one of the first lessons which we have occasion to learn, and one of the most frequent we are called upon to practise. You can hardly mention a cause which has done more to lead men into embarrassment, distress, and crime, than disregard of this caution. A young man just entering into life is solicited by his gay companions to take part in their dissipations. He feels that it would be wrong; that it can lead to nothing but evil. And yet he cannot muster resolution enough to say, “No.” He consents, goes on from step to step, and in the end is ruined. An affectionate mother is besought by her children to grant them some improper indulgence. She feels that it would be an improper indulgence; that it can only do them harm. And yet she cannot find it in her heart to say, “No.”

In the first place, then, Let us learn to respect our own judgment in what we do. If, on a view of all the circumstances, we think we ought to say, “No,” let us have the courage and firmness and independence to say it. A man who dares not act according to his own convictions of what is right, for fear that after all he may be mistaken--I will not say that he has no regard for conscience, but this I will say: he has no confidence in conscience, which in practice amounts to nearly the same thing. Besides, with respect to the construction which other people may put on our motives, if we only take care that our motives are what they should be, and that our whole conduct is in keeping, we need not entertain any apprehensions but that in the long run ample justice will be done them by all whose approbation is worth having. I have shown that it is but the part of a manly independence to have the courage and firmness to say, “No,” when we are convinced that this is the proper word.

I proceed to show that it is no less a dictate of prudence, and practical wisdom. You can hardly step your foot on the threshold of life without encountering seduction in every possible shape; and unless you are prepared to resist it firmly, you are a doomed man. What makes it still more dangerous is, that the first solicitations of vice often come under such disguised forms, and relate to things seemingly so trivial, as to give hardly any warning of the fatal consequences, to which by slow and insensible gradations they are almost sure to lead. As you value, then, your health and reputation, your peace of mind and personal independence, learn to say, “No.” Inquire into the sources of human misery, study the first beginnings of crime, and, meet with it where you may, by tracing it back to its first cause you will find it to have been, in almost every instance, merely because they could not say, “No,” to the tempter. Put the question to one who has wasted his substance in riotous living. The burden of their confession will be, that they owe every calamity which has befallen them to their not having had firmness enough, at some turning-point of their destiny, to say, “No.” As you would avoid their fate, let me then conjure you to avoid its cause.

The same conduct which I have shown to be necessary to a manly independence and to a prudent regard to our own interest I shall next prove to be in no sense inconsistent with a benevolent and truly generous disposition. One of the most common mistakes on this subject is to confound an easy disposition with a benevolent disposition: two things which in fact are as wide asunder as the east from the west. A man of an easy disposition is so commonly merely because he will not make the effort a more firm and steady conduct requires. And why will he not make this effort? Because he will not take the trouble of making it. But is this benevolence? Is it so much as an abuse of benevolence? Is it not sheer selfishness?

Having shown that independence, prudence, and benevolence alike require the conduct I have been recommending, it only remains for me to urge it upon you as a matter of moral and religious duty. It is a great error, though a common one, not to suppose that the principle of duty extends to almost all our actions; requiring them or forbidding them, as being either right or wrong. We talk of actions as being honourable or dishonourable, as being prudent or imprudent, as being benevolent or otherwise, but what is honourable or prudent or benevolent is also right. Everything, therefore, which has already been said to prove the conduct in question a dictate of benevolence, prudence, and manly independence, goes also to the same extent to prove it to be our duty, our imperative duty. Besides, take the words as they stand. If, considering all the circumstances, we ought to say, “No,” then it is our duty to say it, let the consequences be what they may. Some men can never say, “No,” unless they are in a passion, and are therefore driven to the mortifying necessity of working themselves up into a passion before they can find the courage to do it. Again, there are others, who will trust themselves to say, “No,” only as a matter of policy; and with whom, therefore, the question is not, “What ought I to say?” but, “What will it be for my interest to say?” There is also a third class that will say, “No”--and say it often enough too, if that were all--from mere churlishness and ill-humour; but I need not observe that this is very far from being the conduct I am here recommending. Putting aside all such considerations, let us learn to resist improper solicitations from a sense of duty. It should be enough to know that it is our duty. Let us act on this principle, and we shall never refuse except when duty requires it; but at such times our refusal will be much more decided and effectual, while it will be made under circumstances of much greater dignity on our part, and of much less irritation on the part of those whom it may disappoint. Moreover, while we act from a sense of duty, we should connect with this feeling a conviction that it is one of religious obligation. God has required us to pursue a course of undeviating rectitude. Whoever, therefore, would seduce us from this sets himself against God, and we must deny one or the other. Whether in such a case we should deny God rather than man let conscience judge. (James Walker.)

Verse 23

Judges 4:23

So God subdued on that day Jabin.

A great victory--but God’s

What he did: “God subdued . . . Jabin the king.”

1. This is the normal issue of God’s activity. For God to act is for Him to conquer. Where the victory tarries, it is only God waiting.

2. He subdued Jabin the king of Canaan. Who is able to stand against Him?

3. Every oppressor of God’s people becomes His foe. He who molests them virtually challenges God.

How he did it: “So.”

1. By inspiring Deborah with a holy courage.

2. By arrangement. The plan of salvation is only one grand instance of the Divine order,

When he did it: “On that day.” God never miscalculates. The Eternal is never late.

1. It was as soon as they wanted it.

2. It was when they were most ready to receive it.

Where he did it: “Before the children of Israel.”

1. There are many things which God must do out of our sight.

2. There are instances when He works by signs which are visible--Red Sea; Carmel. This victory was not only decided, but manifest. (E. M. Mouchin.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Judges 4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/judges-4.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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