Sometimes when we look at the period of the judges we feel that the incidents are so far removed from our experiences that we have difficulty in grasping the relevance of the book of Judges to our own lives. We are not subject to oppressive invasions, neither are we part of a national identity that is being asked to rally under the banner of a specially appointed judge. So then, what can we learn from the book of Judges?

There is a great deal recorded about the lives and victories of a number of judges and their faithful response makes us aware of the qualities God seeks in those who are prepared to face and conquer sin. But our chief source of exhortation in this article is connected with the very nature and office of the judge itself.

We are told by the Lord: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matt 7:1–2). We are forbidden to judge and condemn our fellow brethren and sisters. The temptation to pass illconceived judgment on all and sundry is a strong part of our make-up. It must be resisted and, indeed, replaced by an altogether different spirit. Rather than being censorious and critical of others we should develop an attitude that suffers long and is kind; one that thinks no evil and seeks to edify and heal (cp Rom 14:10–13).

But having said that, it is important to appreciate that the Scripture also asks us to be discerning. “He that is spiritual,” wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:15, “judgeth all things”. In the sixth chapter of the same epistle he wrote, “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” (v2). He argues that our present individual life is a preparation for an international work of administration and justice in the future age. The beckoning judicial functions of the Kingdom need a proper foundation in Godly attitudes and practices now. Let us then look a little more closely at the reason for the appointment of judges in times past and see if we can glean the lessons God is teaching us in preparation for our future role.

Every Man Did That Which was Right in his own Eyes

The period of Israel’s history after the death of Joshua was summarised by that well-known expression: “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg 17:6, 21:25). A great deal of information is implied in this expression, particularly this idea of doing right. The Hebrew expression asah hayashar can be literally rendered “made (or did) the right”. Notice that the definite article is present. There is a specific right that is being highlighted here.

The first occurrence of the phrase with the definite article appears in Exodus 15:26 at the waters of Marah. These waters were bitter because “there he proved them”.

The nation’s faith and obedience were being put to the test and, for the first time since coming out of Egypt, Yahweh was publicly declaring to them the way He operates amongst His people. This putting to the test was now to be enshrined in a statute: “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of Yahweh thy God, and wilt do that which is right [asah hayashar] in his sight [ayin—eyes], and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am Yahweh that healeth thee”.

The trials of bitterness and deprivation are there for a purpose, but there is also a very clear correlation being made. To Israel it was expressed in the literal reality that if they could do the right in God’s eyes He would ensure their continued health. To us it means that if we can hearken to the voice of His word and do the right in His eyes the sickening effects of mortality can eventually be removed. This right is that which is expressed in the words and commandments given by God. Hence we read that “the word of Yahweh is right [yashar]” in Psalm 33:4.

Now the same lesson was being presented in the days of the judges. The surrounding nations had been left to prove Israel (Judg 3:1,4), but sadly the whole nation did the right in their own eyes, according to their own assessment of what God required and this perception inevitably took them into ruin (Prov 14:12). Man’s eyes are altogether different from God’s eyes in the Biblical record. Eve saw the fruit, the antediluvians beheld the daughters of men, Lot lifted up his eyes towards Sodom, and the list goes on. Performing this right on the basis of human recognition is fraught with dangers. The warning is clear. “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but Yahweh weigheth the spirits” (Prov 16:2). We are easily able to justify our actions before all, but there is a greater power Who is carefully weighing up everything we say and think.

Gesenius tells us that the Hebrew word for right (yashar) means that which is straight and right as opposed to what is crooked and uneven. It is one of the qualities of God Himself mentioned in Deuteronomy 32:4—”He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right [yashar]”. It is a quality which is linked with everything that is true, just and right. Our assessment of what is the right can only be made by measuring it against God’s sense of justice and uprightness.

Doing the right (asah hayashar) is an expression often reserved for God’s assessment of kings. David is said to have done the right in Yahweh’s eyes (1 Kgs 15:5). It is also said of Asa (1 Kgs 15:11) and Jehoash (2 Kgs 12:2) as well as of other kings. It is an assessment of one’s life measured against God’s sense of regal justice and right.

So when we look at Israel’s history after the death of Joshua what was God’s response to a nation that had lost this sense of the right? How could He restore this ideal amongst them? The answer can be found in Paul’s words in Acts 13:20—”And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years”. In ancient times judges were appointed by the people, from amongst the people, but this appointment was totally different. The apostle tells us that God gave them to the people instead. The word didomi has the basic meaning of giving freely, in an unforced manner. They were appointed by Him as gifts to the nation; specifically given with a purpose in mind.

The Purpose of the Judges

What was that purpose? In Judges 2:11–15 the record informs us that Israel forsook Yahweh and suffered great distress at the hand of their enemies. In verses 16,17 we are then told, “Nevertheless Yahweh raised up judges, which delivered [Hebrew—saved] them… And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other gods”.

These judges are introduced with the word “nevertheless”. They are an exception to the expression of Yahweh’s anger against Israel. Furthermore they were not ordinary judges. Their mission was to persuade the nation to listen to God’s word and then engender within them a vibrant faith which could turn to flight the armies of the alien (Heb 11:34). Their counsel was more than just one of arbitration. They were cast in the role of spiritual educators and faithful warriors.

God could have raised up priests and Levites to educate. He could have appointed prophets to turn the people back. He could have established professional soldiers to fight for the nation. But instead He chose judges and gave them additional responsibilities. Why was that? The answer lies in the fundamental work of the judge in Israel—a work that was to become the foundation upon which God wanted to re-establish His concept of what is right amongst the people once more.

The Role of the Judges

Let us examine the role of the judge. There are three clear passages dealing with the ideals that God sought in a judge, and therefore by extension seeks in us too. They are Exodus 18:13–26 (dealing with Jethro’s advice to Moses), Deuteronomy 1:9–18 (outlining Moses’ appointment of the first judges in Israel) and 2 Chronicles 19:4–11 (listing Jehoshaphat’s exhortation to the judges in the land).

All of these contexts contain some powerful exhortations for each of us. Those who are called upon to discern the difference between right and wrong must be “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness”. Here is a need for both ability and capacity. Not everyone is naturally suited to this work. It is a work requiring uprightness and honesty. There is no room for self-seeking; indeed it assumes a way of life in which the presence of God is clearly appreciated. Godliness must be an essential ingredient in cases where we are called upon to resolve difficulties which arise amongst us. Note too that the judge was asked to hear both sides of a controversy fairly and in a brotherly spirit. “Hear the causes between your brethren and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him.”

They were not to be intimidated or permitted to show favouritism. They were not to dismiss a case as being beneath them or being too trivial. “Ye shall not respect persons in judgment: but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man.” Above all these considerations was a recognition that “the judgment is God’s”. They were being asked to judge as though God was in the courtroom and they were deciding with God beside them. How different would our decision making be if we kept that principle in mind.

A Great Responsibility

What a great responsibility these people had in Israel! And because their decision was final they wielded great power in the congregation—a power that was later abused and condemned by God. Jehoshaphat appreciated their importance to the stability of peoples’ lives. “Take heed what ye do,” he told them, “for ye judge not for man, but for Yahweh, who is with you in the judgment”. If only we could remember those words next time we are called upon to arbitrate between a brother or sister or discern some important issue.

He went on to say, “Thus shall ye do in the fear of Yahweh, faithfully, and with a perfect heart… Deal courageously, and Yahweh shall be with the good”. Right and proper judgment takes faith and courage to implement. Side by side with this is a perfect and complete heart. This means that nothing is done in a divisive spirit. A complete heart is one which seeks to heal rifts and bring peace to the table. With these thoughts in mind the king could give a guarantee—Yahweh will providentially prosper decisions which are good and right.

It is no wonder then, when we return to the book of Judges, that we see God’s purpose in raising up judges. He was seeking to build on these ideals of establishing right. He sought to restore a condition in Israel where every man could do the right in Yahweh’s eyes and not in their own. That right was not just the difference between right and wrong; it was the right way of dealing with others, the right way of administering justice and judgment, the right way of behaviour in the fear of God. God sought to overturn the anarchy and civil war of the period, reverse the sliding apostasy and idolatry and establish wholesome justice in the house of Israel. This was why He gave them judges as the spearhead for reform and redemption.

We are often prone to making glib judgments and hasty decisions without considering all the details. Sometimes we are ready to willingly believe a friend rather than see the point of view of someone with whom we are at odds. It is easier to impute an evil motive rather than accept a good motive. We often like to filter the information we receive and accept what we want to believe rather than face unpalatable truths. All in all, many things work against us when we face the time to make right decisions and resolve difficulties. This only serves to emphasise the need for doing the right in God’s eyes by resisting the temptation to allow prejudice and self-interest to ruin the whole affair.

How significant it is that the Lord Jesus Christ is so different. “He shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isa 11:3,4).

So wonderfully different was the capacity of this man that God committed to His Son the necessary authority to execute judgment on His behalf (John 5:22,26,27). Imagine that! We are highly dependent upon external perceptions. Sometimes we only hear one part of the story. At other times we filter out a crucial part of the case and our judgments are indeed fallible. But his judgment was not based on external appearances (John 7:24). He was so different because he knew what is in man (John 2:25). He had the ability to exercise unerring judgment because he could look upon the heart and discern its thoughts and intents.

We don’t have the capacity or the power to judge in this way, but it should serve to make us fully aware that the Lord does. One day we will face the judge of all the earth and give account of the judgments and decisions we have made. As far as our personal judgments go, let us not be evil-thinking judges, imputing the wrong motives, condemning one another by our words and actions. But rather “so speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (Jas 2:12,13).