7 The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, forgetting the Lord their God, and worshipping the Baals and the Asherahs. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim; and the Israelites served Cushan-rishathaim for eight years. 9 But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel; he went out to war, and the Lord gave King Cushan-rish a tha im of Aram into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest for forty years. Then Othniel son of Kenaz died.
Deliverance is a movie released in 1972 about four Atlanta businessmen that decide to take a canoe trip down a river in the remote Georgia wilderness. The first time I saw the movie, the only time I saw it, I found it disturbing and ugly. Everything goes wrong for the four men. They are assaulted by local hillbillies. They wreck their canoes. One of the businessmen is killed. Two of the locals are killed. Then they invent a story to protect themselves from the police investigation and just go home. There is a lake being built that will cover all the bodies anyway—so they think, but the closing scene is of one of the businessmen asleep in his bed. He has a nightmare. He sees a dead hand rising out of the lake. I suppose the implication is that he is not delivered from what happened in the woods. That is kind of ironic, isn’t it? There is no deliverance in the movie Deliverance.
Perhaps we need a better example than the movie. How about a real life deliverer? Someone like Sister Mary Virgilius Reidy. Clarence Thomas acknowledged her as one of the key people whose influence enabled him to overcome poverty and racism and rise from obscurity to Supreme Court Justice. Sister Virgilius is a tiny, bespectacled, ordinary-looking woman. Nothing about her suggests greatness of any kind, yet Newsweek magazine wrote this about her and others who served in the school where she taught Clarence Thomas:
The nuns who lived in the black areas of town were not popular. Whites occasionally referred to them as the "nigger sisters." The Ku Klux Klan once sent a hearse to the rectory to intimidate church officials, but the nuns taught discipline. "They said you could do it," recalls Orien Douglas, a classmate of Clarence's. "Mostly they said, 'You will [do it].'"
Sister Virgilius overcame two forms of evil. She stood against the oppressive racism of that time. She and the other nuns took on the Ku Klux Klan, and the system of segregation. They refused to be intimidated. The other evil that Sister Virgilius challenged was the loss of hope that takes place inside people, when they no longer believe that the future holds possibilities for them. Against this, the nuns said, "You will succeed. We believe in you, and we insist that you believe in yourself."
These were women who responded to the call of God in their lives. They had a higher purpose than just human approval. They were serving God. They had a message for their students. The attacks of racism from without and the attacks of hopelessness from within were not going to be permitted to destroy them. So this woman was, in Clarence Thomas' mind, a hero.
Othniel was also a hero. He also stood against powerful outward enemies and he stood against the loss of hope.
Let us set the scene here. This is the generation after Joshua and the conquest of Canaan. The Israelites have settled in the land, and things have gone horribly wrong. Actually the people have gone wrong. The people brought their problems on themselves. They are responsible for their own sins. V7: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, forgetting the Lord their God, and worshipping the Baals and the Asherahs.”
Maybe this leads us to a clue for solving our own personal difficulties. Maybe the first part of solving any problem is acknowledging that we are part of the problem.
The children of Israel chose to worship other gods. They did not have to do that. It was not their destiny. It was their choice. These people did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; that is, they deliberately chose the opposite of what they knew God wanted them to do.
Their evil is spelled out a little for us. We are told that "they forgot the Lord." This is part of the process of sin. When we sin, we push God out of our lives. We find ourselves less interested in the things of God. We have little desire to go to places where God is honored, because the wickedness that we have chosen has become more important to us than God.
Then v7 says they worshipped the “the Baals and the Asherahs.” Having distanced themselves from God, they ended up serving Gods of their own making. There is an old Bob Dylan song that says, "You've got to serve somebody. It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you've got to serve somebody." Nobody is ever entirely independent. We would like to believe that we are, but it does not work that way. So having rejected the Lord God, the Israelites worshipped idols.
However, their idols did not help them much. This guy with a weird name from a county with a weird name marched in and took anything he wanted. His name was Cushan-Rish a tha im. He was the king of Aram-Na ha ra im. The second part of the king’s name--Rishathaim means "double wickedness." This is certainly not what he called himself. This is what the Israelites called him, with good reason. Cushan the Double-Wicked ravaged the land for eight years. The people began to lose hope.
By the way scholars suggest that the Israelites may have also given Cushan his name because it rhymed with his country--Cushan-Rish a tha im from Aram-Na ha ra im. It does not matter. He was Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Adolph Hitler, Stalin. We know the type all too well.
From the misery and despair of Israel, we can see something of how the process of sin works. It usually follows the same pattern. We choose to sin because we think it will bring an advantage to us, it will bring us some pleasure or delight; but what sin actually brings is slavery. What we find at the end is loss, loneliness, and guilt, and we become much less than we wanted to be. We don't know where to turn. The double wickedness destroys all hope, and there appears to be no going back; the situation seems doomed to failure.
But it is not. The Israelites thought that they were in a hopeless situation. They were so hopeless that they turned to that last desperate measure—prayer. This is the second step in solving personal and communal problems. The first step was to recognize that they were part of the problem. The second step was to call on God. No matter where we are, we are never without hope, because we can still pray.
And prayer led to a plan. This is how God answers prayer. Angels don’t suddenly appear to destroy our problems. God does not step down from heaven with fire and brimstone. But more often as we pray, we receive an answer in the form of a plan. You have a problem. God says, do this.
Now what we have in Judges is a summary of the rebellion against Cushan the Double-Wicked. What Israel needed was a leader who could unite the tribes so that they could rise up together and overthrow the oppressor. They had to have someone with reputation as a warrior, who could inspire confidence in other warriors.
Prayer gave the answer. They had such a warrior. We read in v9, “But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.”
Othniel was one of Joshua’s warriors. More than that Othniel had performed an incredible feat of arms during the conquest of Canaan. The story is found in Joshua 15. Caleb had led a force into southern Canaan and was having difficulties taking the town of Debir. So Caleb said, whoever takes this town for me will have my daughter Achsah for a wife. Young Othniel stepped forward, led the assault, took the town, married Achsah.
It sounds like a Hollywood movie to me. It probably would be better than Deliverance.
In any case, the story of what happened at Debir was known throughout Israel. Othniel was famous in his time, in his generation. When Israel needed a rally point, a man in whom they could have confidence, he was an obvious choice. The wonder is that it took them eight years to figure that out. I guess they tried everything else first. They probably tried to make peace, but Cushan would not make peace. They probably tried to buy him off, that did not work either. Finally, when the situation was completely desperate, they turned to God in prayer and God gave them the answer.
Othniel had credentials, reputation. He can raise an army to fight the bad guys, so they followed Othniel into battle.
Now notice this. This is another basic point about solving problems. Prayer is part of solving the problem. But we are also part of solving the problem. I said earlier that we need to recognize that we are part of the problem, we are also part of the solution.
Look at this situation in Israel. They have a plan. They have a charismatic leader that they can follow with confidence, but they still have to fight, and probably some were wounded and some died. That is the price that was paid. God used the people to attain their own deliverance.
Othniel led them in battle, they threw off the yoke of the oppressor, and then he led them for the next forty-years. Forty years in the Bible is the length of a generation. So this is a generation of people who sinned, suffered and prayed, and then they acted. They won their freedom. God helped them, but ultimately they had to solve their own problems. This seems fair enough since they caused their own problems.
Now this is a very short story from Judges, but there is a valuable lesson here. We do not need to live in hopelessness. We do not need to live in defeat.
For eight years, the Israelites thought they were a conquered people. Even today, too many people live defeated, conquered lives. Too many Christians are spending their lives on the downside. God wants us to live on the upside, the place of victory.
I asked earlier, why did they wait eight years. The answer I suspect is obvious. They were afraid. Much human behavior can be explained by simple fear.
That reminds me of a story: Two boys went into a dentist’s office and one of them asked the dentist, "Doc, will you pull a tooth right this minute? Don’t use any painkiller. Just give it a yank." "Certainly," replied the dentist. "But you are a very brave young man. Show me the tooth you want pulled." The boy turned to his friend, "Johnny, show the Doc your tooth."
It is easy for us to have courage for others, but when we are the one facing that horrible situation, its not so easy.
Othniel and his family lived in Southern Judah. We suspect that Cushan invaded Canaan from the north so Othniel probably was among the last to feel the effects of the ravagers. He could have said to himself, “It is not my concern.” He did not want to leave his wife and children. But God raised him up and he boldly stepped forward to do the Lord’s work.
By the way, Othniel, in the Hebrew, means "lion of God." He certainly lived up to his name. Maybe its time we became Othniel, “lions of God,” when it comes to dealing with our bad situations.
We might criticize the Israelites for causing their own problems and waiting so long to do anything about their problems, but are we so different? I suspect not. When we get ourselves into trouble, we put off doing anything about it. The truth is many people would rather live in bondage than take a risk to make things better. We are sometimes slaves to our situations, and we feel hopeless.
These verses from Judges teach us a different attitude. You do not need to be in bondage any longer. Trust in God and God will be with you to help you to deliver yourself.
We are not told exactly what military tactics Othniel used to win the battle, but we are told "the Spirit of the Lord came upon him." This is a key to winning any battle. What battle are you facing? Allow the Spirit of the Lord to come upon you. God will give you courage and lift you out of your despair.
After the defeat of Cushan the Double-Wicked, the land had rest for forty years. There was peace throughout Israel. Othniel judged the nation and kept them focused on God. That is the secret of inner peace—focus on God.
Sidney Lanier fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the war, his health was never the same. He battled sickness until he died in 1881. Throughout this troubled time of his life, he continued composing songs and poems in spite of his physical weakness. He wrote his last poem when he had a fever of 104 degrees. These are some of his words:
But I fear not, no, I fear not the thing to be done;
I am strong with the strength of my lord the Sun:
How dark, how dark soever the race that must needs be run,
I am lit with the Sun.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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