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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Judges 5

 

 

Verse 1

CHAP. V.

The song of Deborah and Barak.

Before Christ 1294.

Judges 5:1. Then sang Deborah, &c.— According to the usual custom of those times, a triumphant song or ode was composed by the prophetess Deborah, and sung by her and Barak, the people, most probably, bearing their part with them. Dr. Lowth produces this as an example of the most sublime ode; and as such it has always been admired. Like the other pieces of sacred poetry which we have heretofore reviewed, it is composed in metre, to which, among other learned men, the Reverend Mr. Green has ingeniously reduced it. An attention to this particular will enable us to understand it the better. It consists of three parts; an exordium, a relation of events which preceded as well as accompanied the victory, and a more complete description of the last event, adorned with all the elegancies of poetry, namely, the death of Sisera, and the disappointed expectations of his mother. See Bishop Lowth's 28th Praelection.


Verse 2

Judges 5:2. Praise ye the Lord Full of gratitude for this signal mark of divine favour, Deborah begins her song with a noble acknowledgment of God's assistance, and, as usual in poems of this kind, bursts forth in the next verse into a fine apostrophe, with all that variety of change in numbers and persons, which so eminently distinguishes the Hebrew poetry. Houbigant renders this clause,

Because the leaders of Israel undertook the war, Because the people willingly offered themselves, praise ye the Lord.

In which version, as he observes, the clauses correspond, as is usual in this kind of poetry.


Verse 4

Judges 5:4. Lord, when thou wentest out of Seir The argument of this ode is, the delivery of the people of Israel, by the assistance of God, from bondage; which the sacred writer briefly proposing at the beginning, and having summoned the kings and princes of the neighbouring nations to take note of so great an event, she enters upon the praises of God, not from the recent benefit, but from the miracles performed of old, at their departure out of Egypt.

O JEHOVAH! when thou wentest out of Seir, When thou marched'st out of the land of Edom, The earth trembled; the heavens thundered; The clouds dropt down water.


Verse 5

Judges 5:5. The mountains flowed down at the presence of Jehovah, Even Sinai at the presence of Jehovah, the God of Israel.

See Habakkuk 3:6. Isaiah 64:1; Isaiah 64:12. Psalms 68:8-9. Deuteronomy 1:19-20. An introduction so unexpectedly made from such great topics, breathes the free and fervent spirit of the ode. Nor is there, notwithstanding, the least obscurity, either in the connection or the tacit comparison of the benefit now received with that stupendous delivery from Egypt. We would just observe, that the word which we render March, signifies literally to march with pomp, with majesty; and in like manner, the Hebrew word which is rendered wentest out, signifies emphatically to go out with eclat, with glory. See the Dissert. of Mr. G. J. Lette, p. 16. and Seneca's Troades, v. 171.

REFLECTIONS.—The grateful heart of Deborah, big with thankfulness, in strains more sublime, more tender, than Sappho or Homer ever sung, under the guidance of the true inspirer, dictates and leads the song among the victorious hosts of Israel on that day, either the very day of battle, or on the occasion of it in some future solemnity; Barak and the people with joy united their voices, and praised with the glorious God of hosts. Note; Praise is comely, and as pleasing to God as comfortable to ourselves.

1. She opens with exultation, Praise ye the Lord; and abundant reason is given, in the wondrous interposition which appeared when vengeance overtook their enemies. As God, after such a length of deserved servitude, had in mercy again stirred up the people's heart to shake off the galling yoke; therefore, to Him, the Lord Jehovah, the God of irresistible Power, the Lord God of Israel, their Covenant-God, I, so bound in duty, so filled with gratitude, I, even I, will sing. Note; God must have all the glory of his own work; for, although he uses instruments, yet the praise for the success is purely his own.

2. She demands attention from the great ones of the earth; whether the neighbouring kings and princes, who should hear and tremble; or the great men of Israel, who should rejoice with her.

3. She describes the glorious appearances of God in time past; when at Sinai the mount trembled, and a mighty tempest was stirred up round about him; or when, invading the country of Sihon, such terror went before them, and the hearts of the people shook with fear: their nobles, compared to the heavens, were weak as water; and the kings of Canaan, though high as the mountains, melted before the ark of God. He is still the same, wonderful in power, and glorious in majesty, his people's safeguard, his enemies' destroyer.


Verse 6-7

Judges 5:6-7. In the days of Shamgar The prophetess in these verses gives us a description of the wretched state of Israel during the time of that captivity, from which she, by the assistance of God, delivered them. It is very easy, says the author of the Observations, (p. 216.) to turn out of the roads in the east, and go to a place by winding about over the lands, when that is thought safer. Dr. Shaw takes notice of this circumstance, observing, that in Barbary they found no hedges, mounds, or inclosures, to retard or molest them. To this Deborah doubtless refers, though the Doctor does not apply his remark to the present passage. Bishop Pococke's account of the manner in which the Arabs, under whose care he was, conducted him to Jerusalem, illustrates this with great liveliness. It was by night, not by the high road, but through the fields; and I observed that he avoided, as much as he could, going near any village or encampment, and sometimes, as I thought, to hearken. "And just in that manner people were obliged to travel in Judea in the days of Shamgar and Jael." Bishop Patrick would render the first line, from the days of Shamgar. Mr. Green supposes, that Jael here mentioned, was not Jael the wife of Heber; and he justly observes, that the phrase, In the days of Jael, implies time past, and supposes that Jael was dead, as well as Shamgar. Besides, what honour could redound to the prophetess from such a comparison? Is it worthy of a boast, that she, who was Judege in Israel, had done more in delivering them from the enemy than Heber's wife, who was only a sojourner in Israel, and whose husband was at peace with the enemy? The Jael here mentioned, therefore, seems to have been a prophetess, raised up before Deborah to judge Israel, but who died without delivering them. It is true, indeed, the name of this prophetess is not mentioned before; but neither are any of the transactions of the time in which she is supposed to have lived, recorded; nor is Shamgar's name mentioned more than once, ch. Judges 3:31 and then principally on account of that single exploit of slaying six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad. Deborah is called a mother in Israel, for the same reason as every deliverer of his country is called the father of it.


Verse 8

Judges 5:8. They chose new gods This verse is differently rendered. Some interpreters suppose that the meaning simply is, that in consequence of the Israelitish idolatry, war and destruction overtook them: forsaking God, they were forsaken of him, and given up into the hand of their enemies; who, to prevent them from regaining their liberty, disarmed them, as the Philistines did afterwards in the days of Saul; (see 1 Samuel 13:19 and Caesar's Comment. lib. 2: cap. 31:) or rather, that the Israelites were disarmed by their own pusillanimity, and so dispirited, that a shield or spear was not seen in their hands to oppose their enemies. If I might hazard a conjecture, I should conceive, that this verse refers to the present delivery by Deborah, and not to the past state of things. In the two former verses Deborah has set forth the melancholy condition of Israel till she arose its deliverer: it is reasonable, therefore, to expect, that she should immediately speak of that deliverance; and in this view the verse might be rendered;

The Lord hath chosen new things, [a renovation of his former mercies] Then, or accordingly, there is war in the gates. Shall not a spear and a shield be among the forty thousand in Israel?

After which she proceeds in the next verse to applaud those warriors, who thus, at the call of the Lord, seized the shield and the spear, and offered themselves willingly for the rescue of their country. It may be necessary to remark, that the Vulgate, Syriac, and Arabic versions render the first clause of this verse, the Lord hath chosen or will choose, new wars, or a new thing.


Verse 10

Judges 5:10. Speak, ye that ride on white asses These are supposed to have been asses of the Zebra kind צחר zachar. The author of the Observations, however, (p. 268.) is of opinion, "that these asses are not called white on account of their natural colour, but rather from their caparisons, according to the custom among the Arabs to this day, who use saddles of wood in riding, and have always, as a part of their riding furniture, a cloth which they call the hiran, about six ells long, which they fold up and put upon the wooden saddle, in order to fit with greater ease; and which they use when they bait, as a sort of mattrass to repose themselves upon." The clause, ye that sit in judgment, explains the preceding. Ye who walk by the way, seems evidently to mean the merchants or traffickers, who might now safely travel about their business, which they could not do before this deliverance, (Judges 5:6.) and for which Deborah calls upon them to speak, i.e. give thanks to God. Thus the passage may be interpreted, as it stands in our Bible. But as the word rendered speak ye, שׂיחו Sichu, is the last in this sentence, and as many words are obliged to be inserted at the beginning of the 11th verse, I apprehend that there should be no stop; and that the passage might be rendered in some such manner as this: ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, and ye who walk by the way, pursue your meditations, free from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water. There [in those places late so hostile and dangerous] they shall relate the righteous acts of the Lord; his righteous acts for the villages in Israel; and then shall the people of the Lord [safely] go down to their cities. I would just observe, that the word שׂיחו rendered speak ye, signifies properly to meditate, reflect deeply; and that in the eastern countries the places of drawing water being much frequented, and of the greatest utility, the prophetess could not express herself more strongly, than by saying, that they might meditate free from danger there, where the enemy would in times of danger be sure constantly to plant themselves. Dr. Shaw, p. 20 tells us of a beautiful rill in Barbary, which is received into a large bason, called Shrub we krub, i.e. drink and away, from there being great danger of meeting there with rogues and assassins. If such places are proper for the lurking of murderers in time of peace, they must be proper for the lying in ambush in times of war; the circumstance of which Deborah here takes notice. In the Gesta Dei per Francos, p. 27, the writer, speaking of the want of water which the Croisade army felt so severely at the siege of Jerusalem, gives us a still more perfect comment on the present passage; for he complains, that, besides being forced to use stinking water and barley bread, their people were in continual danger from the Saracens, who, lying hid near all the fountains and places of water, every where destroyed numbers of them, and carried off their cattle. See Observations, p. 341.

REFLECTIONS.—Deborah now mentions with delight the deliverance that God had wrought by her means; not out of pride or vain conceit of her work or agency in it, but to the glory of God, who had enabled her for, and called her to, the blessed service. Herein she acknowledges the ready assistance of those governors who willingly offered themselves to fight the Lord's battles. Her heart was towards them in love for their fidelity, and drawn out to God in praise for having incited them to follow her. Note; They who boldly stand up for the cause of God, justly deserve the regard of Prayer of Manasseh 1:2. She enjoins the several ranks of men to praise God for the happy change. The nobles, who were distinguished by riding on white asses; the judges, who sat in the gate; the plowman, that now securely broke the sod; the traveller, who safely trod the lately unoccupied path; the drawer of water, who drank before at the peril of his life; all must unite their hearts and voices to adore the great Deliverer, and to bless the Lord, who had done for them such marvellous things. Note; Every man in his station has peculiar mercies to be thankful for.


Verse 12-13

Judges 5:12-13. Lead thy captivity captive—Then he made him, &c.— I conceive that this passage is to be understood totally different. The word rendered have dominion, in the 13th verse ירד ierad, is in the 14th very properly rendered came down, which is its true meaning, and agreeably to that which it ought to be rendered in this 13th verse. In the 12th verse, Deborah, in an exulting strain of praise, excites herself and Barak to consider the instruments of this great victory which God had vouchsafed for Israel; and we may look upon these words as if addressed to her and Barak by the Lord, calling upon them to undertake the great exploit, Arise, arise, Deborah! arise, arise! speak the inspiring song. Arouse Barak, thou son of Abinoam, and lead thy captivity captive. In consequence of this incitation, the prophetess goes on to say, Then he who remained from the nobles of the people came down: the Lord came down for me against the mighty; in the former clause speaking of Barak, in the second of herself, in the most modest manner. Mr. Green interprets the passage something in the same way. He renders it, then the people that remained came down after the nobles,—JEHOVAH'S people came down after me against the mighty. Whichever version may be most agreeable to the original, this mode of interpretation is certainly right, as is evident from the connection with the next verse, in which Deborah proceeds to speak of the tribes. Out of Ephraim, says she, came down those who were planted in Amalek.—After thee, O Benjamin, among thy people,—out of Machir came down governors,—and out of Zebulun those who rule with the sceptre, as Mr. Green well renders it; justly observing, that שׁבט shebet, sceptre, never signifies a pen throughout the Scriptures. See Genesis 49:10, where shebet, sceptre, is equivalent to מחקק mechokek, lawgiver, or governor, in the former. We follow Mr. Green's interpretation of the words, Judges 5:14 out of Ephraim was there a root of them against Amalek: words which greatly perplex the commentators; most of them taking Amalek here to be the name of a people, whereas it is the name of a place in the tribe of Ephraim, as the LXX understand it. The idea of planting is frequently used for the settlement of the Israelites in the land of Canaan. See Psalms 44:2; Psalms 80:8. Those then who were planted in Amalek, must mean the people who were settled by Joshua in the hill called by that name. See chap. Judges 12:15. The prophetess seems to give this people, who were of the tribe of Ephraim, and the tribe of Benjamin, the precedency in her muster, because she administered justice upon their confines, chap. Judges 4:5.; and found them most ready to engage in this service.


Verses 15-18

Judges 5:15-18. And the princes of Issachar Mr. Green, transposing the concluding word of the last verse, seper, to the beginning of this, reads, The princes of Issachar were numbered with Deborah and Barak, when Barak was sent on foot into the valley. See ch. Judges 4:10. After having commended those who gloriously engaged in this war, Deborah proceeds to express her disapprobation of those who withheld themselves from it. She in a beautiful manner apostrophises the Reubenites, (Judges 5:16.) whose unhappy divisions prevented them from joining with their brethren in the common cause, and, as she finely repeats, occasioned great searchings of heart. Gilead, i.e. the Gadites, Judges 5:17 abode inactive beyond Jordan; those of Dan continued intent upon their merchandises, while their brethren hazarded their lives in the field: Asher too (which tribe, like that of Dan, was situated on the sea shore,) refused to join their brethren in the common cause, intent upon their mercantile affairs, and buried in their several ports and havens; while Zebulun and Naphtali, with a most heroic courage, engaged as one man to hazard their lives and fortunes for the recovery of their liberty.


Verse 19

Judges 5:19. The kings came and fought Several kings of Canaan, most probably, had united themselves with Jabin in this expedition. Taanach and Megiddo were two cities belonging to the Manassites, Joshua 17:11. They took no gain of money, is variously interpreted. "The simple sense," says Bishop Patrick, "seems to be, that they were kings of such bravery, as fought not for money, but for glory and dominion." Houbigant, after the Vulgate, understands it, that they got nothing but blows; no prey or spoil at all, as they expected: and agreeably hereto, Mr. Green renders it, for lucre of money, which they carried not off. The prophet, says he, uses the figure called meiosis, by which more is intended than expressed. Her meaning is, that the kings of Canaan were so far from carrying off the booty they came for, that they did even escape with their lives; and if we consider how sarcastically the prophetess makes the Israelitish spoil engage the attention of Sisera's mother, we may probably think that she meant this too as a sarcasm upon the kings of Canaan for their lucrative views in fighting against Israel. See Calmet.


Verse 20

Judges 5:20. They fought from heaven This would be rendered more properly, the stars fought from heaven: they fought from their orbits [their paths or courses] against Sisera. See on ch. Judges 4:14-15. It is no unusual thing for the sacred writers to speak of inanimate things as engaged in war against the enemies of Jehovah. See Habakkuk 3:11. Concerning the river Kishon, mentioned in the next verse, we refer to the note on chap. Judges 4:6. Some have supposed, that by the stars here are meant the angels, see Job 38:7. Perhaps, as the Canaanites were worshippers of the Host of Heaven, the prophetess may mean to say, that the stars in the firmament, recognizing their great Master, declared at his command for the Israelites; and, in some extraordinary manner, assisted at the discomfiture of their false worshippers. The beautiful energy of the repetition in the next verse scarcely need be hinted, any more than the fine apostrophe at the close; wherein we see, that Deborah was so full of the important subject, that she is no longer able to pursue a regular train, but bursts forth into that elegant exclamation, to which, perhaps, there is nothing superior in the finest writings of the heathen poets.


Verse 22

Judges 5:22. Then were the horse-hoofs broken The word prancings destroys the whole force of this passage. The sacred writer means to inform us of the extreme haste and precipitation with which the vanquished fled. The word דהר dahar is used but once more in Scripture, Nahum 3:2 where, from the words it is joined with, it must mean the clattering of the horse on full speed. The prophetess, denouncing God's judgments, tells the people, that they should themselves be given up a prey to the Chaldeans, whose army God would send against them; and that then they should hear the noise of the charioteer's whip, of the rattling wheels, the clattering horse, and jumping chariot. The rendering of the margin, trampling, or plunging, is better than the text. Perhaps the meaning of it cannot be better expressed than by this celebrated line of Virgil's,

Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum. AEn. 8: ver. 5:596.

Dr. Waterland, very properly, for of their mighty ones, reads of their mighty horses; an expression which greatly adds to the force of the passage, as they were not common horses, but their best and strongest, whose hoofs were broken on this occasion. See Green on the place, and Bochart Hieroz. p. i. l. ii. c. 6. We should just remark, that anciently it was not the custom to shoe their horses; nay, indeed, at present in Arabia and Tartary they have excellent horses which are never shod. See Tavernier, vol. i. b. ii. c. 5. and Montfaucon, tom. i. p. 79. Houbigant renders this verse, Then were the horse-hoofs broken, their riders flying away with precipitate speed.


Verse 23-24

Judges 5:23-24. Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord It is plain from the corresponding clause, that Meroz was a city, the inhabitants whereof refused to assist in this war, and therefore are thus solemnly devoted by the angel of the Lord. See Joshua 5:14. Against the mighty, at the close of this verse, is rendered by Houbigant, with the mighty; with those warriors of the Lord, who freely offered themselves in this enterprise. From this curse the prophetess passes, by a beautiful transition, to the blessing of Jael, whose exploit is recorded in the foregoing chapter. The passage is so truly elegant and poetical, that our translators have insensibly fallen into two fine heroic lines in the 25th verse:

He asked water, and she gave him milk; She brought forth butter in a lordly dish.

The word translated dish would be more properly rendered bowl (see ch. Judges 6:38.); a large and capacious vessel, in which she brought him perhaps cream, or the best milk. See AEneid 1: The liquid here presented by Jael to Sisera was butter-milk. Few people, I believe, would think cream very proper drink for one that was thirsty. M. D'Arvieux informs us, that the Arabs make their butter by churning in a leathern bottle; that they drink sometimes sweet milk, and sometimes make froth of it; but that, when it curdles, they put the juice of an herb to it to make it sourer: they also put some of it upon their pilaw, or boiled rice, and eat it mixed together. If then the Kenites made butter as the modern Arabs do, (and there does not appear any refinement in the present Arab custom, which retains strong marks of the ancient simplicity,) the supposing Jael to have been just churning will account for the present passage, and chap. Judges 4:19. Sisera, being thirsty, asked for water; she opens a bottle (a skin, according to the original), i.e. the leathern bottle with which she had been just churning; and pouring its contents into a bowl, fit to be presented to a man of Sisera's quality, and doubtless the best in her tent, she offers him this butter-milk to drink. This gave occasion to Deborah to speak of milk and butter both. Sour milk is esteemed by those people as more refreshing than that which is sweet. Thus then, instead of water, she gave him a better liquid; the most refreshing, we may believe, that she had by her. Dr. Pococke, vol. 2: p. 25 says, that during the time of his entertainment by the Arabs, in the Holy Land, they brought cakes which were sour, and fine oil of olives to dip them in: but, perceiving that he did not like this, they served him up some sour butter-milk to drink; and every meal was finished with coffee. This, we are to observe, was the entertainment of people who treated him in the most respectful manner they could; and was produced, when they found that what was before prepared for him was not so agreeable, being desirous of doing every thing they could to accommodate him. So, in the account of Commodore Stewart's embassy to redeem some British captives, in 1721, we are told, "that butter-milk is the chief dessert of the Moors; and that when they would speak of the extraordinary sweetness of any thing (I suppose agreeableness is meant), they compare it with buttermilk." Observations, p. 152. The following verses (26, 27) are equally elegant and poetical with Judges 5:25. The description is so minute, that we, as it were, behold the very action.

REFLECTIONS.—Deborah, proceeding in her seraphic song, kindles as she recites the righteous acts of the Lord, and calls up all the faculties of her soul to stretch their utmost powers in uttering his praise. Let Barak now arise, and lead the captive nobles of Canaan bound to his chariot-wheels; and let the meanest of the Israelites who have survived their oppressors trample on the necks of the mighty: yea, Deborah herself, though a woman, shall triumph in the dominion that God has given her. With just praise, she mentions the brave warriors who assisted her; with wonder, the mighty foes who fell before them; and with just indignation, stamps with infamy the coward tribes that sat unconcerned spectators of the war. Note; (1.) They who are zealous for God, shall assuredly hear of it shortly to their everlasting honour. (2.) When we go to war with the enemies of our souls, we had need be determined, since conquest or death eternal must be the issue. (3.) The whole creation is armed to avenge God's quarrel against his own and his people's enemies. Jael, the wife of Heber, receives her deserved encomium for that noble deed against the enemy of God and his Israel. Lulled into security by her invitation and treatment, Sisera, without suspicion, drank of her cup, and lay down to sleep; when, stirred up by a divine impulse, her manly soul approached the devoted victim, and, with unrelenting steadiness, she struck the deadly blow. Awaking, at her feet he fell: the shadows of death hung heavy on his eye-lids, he bowed, he fell; he bowed, he fell down dead, not in the bed of honour, nor slain by the devouring sword, but by the hand of a woman, surprised without the power of resistance. The terror of the mighty now lies low, and pride is humbled to the dust: thus will it shortly be with those who now are sunk in sin, and asleep in security; soon the arrows of the Almighty will stick fast in them; they must bow under the stroke of vengeance, and fall, not into the arms of Death only, but into the belly of Hell!


Verses 28-30

Judges 5:28-30. The mother of Sisera looked out, &c.— Dr. Lowth produces this passage as a most beautiful example of the prosopopoeia: "We have, in the first place," says he, "the most striking image of maternal solicitude, and of a mind divided between hope and fear, both in the behaviour and words of Sisera's mother:

The mother of Sisera looked out at a window; She cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?

Immediately, impatient of delay, she prevents the comfort of her companions, elate in mind, and bursting forth into female levity and jactation, impotent to hope for any thing, and drunk with her good fortune Her wise ladies earnestly answered her, Yea, she immediately returned answer to herself; Have they not sped? Have they not divided the spoil?

We see how consonant to the person speaking is every idea, every word. She dwells not upon the slaughter of the enemies, the number of the captives, the valour and great exploits of the victor, but (burning with the female love of spoils) on those things rather which captivate the light mind of the vainest woman, damsels, gold, garments. Nor does she dwell upon them only; but she repeats, she accumulates, she augments every thing. She seems, as it were, to handle the spoils, dwelling as she does upon every particular:

Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey? A damsel, yea, two damsels to every man; To Sisera a prey of divers colours, A prey of divers colours, of needlework, Finely coloured, of needlework on both sides, A spoil for adorning the neck?

To enhance the beauty of this passage, there is, in the poetic conformation of the sentences, an admirable neatness; in the diction, great force, splendor, accuracy; in the very redundance of the repetitions, the utmost brevity: and, lastly, the most striking disappointment of the woman's hope, tacitly insinuated by that sudden and unexpected apostrophe,

So let all thine enemies perish, O JEHOVAH! is expressed more fully and strongly by this silence, than could have been painted by any colouring of words." See Dr. Lowth's 13th Praelection, Proverbs 4:18-19 and the note on Joshua 7:21. We cannot do better than conclude this chapter with the words of Pelican: "Let a Homer or Virgil go and compare his poetry, if he be able, with the song of this woman; and, if there be any one who excels in eloquence and learning, let him celebrate the praises and learning of this panegyrick more copiously than I am able."

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Judges 5:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/judges-5.html. 1801-1803.

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