The brief but stormy reign of the “Bramble King” was followed by a number of years of comparative rest (1197-1170 BC). The sacred historian was silent upon the events of these years, although it is probable that the two Judges named in this chapter defended their countrymen from threatened or actual attack during this time. They were humble, active, and useful rulers who were appointed by God. Tola was Israel’s Judge for 23 years, from 1197-1174 BC; and he was succeeded by Jair, whose 30 sons held rank as magistrates or nobles over 30 cities. Jair judged Israel for 22 years, from 1174-1152 BC.
A relapse into idolatry brought about yet another period of oppression for Israel – beginning in 1170 BC, which was the fourth year of the Judgeship of Jair; and continuing until the end of his Judgeship (1152 BC). For the first time, we read that the Israelites worshiped the idols of the Philistines and the Syrians, as well as those of Phoenicia, Moab, and Ammon. This interaction with Philistia and Ammon led to an invasion and subjugation by those nations. In the first year of hostilities, the Israelites were grievously crushed. And for a total of 18 years, the eastern tribes of Israel were held in subjection by the Ammonite warriors, whose land adjoined the territory of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. At length, in 1152 BC, the Ammonite king proceeded to establish himself on the west side of the Jordan River as well. And then, in terror and distress, the cry of repentance went up once more from the sinning nation to the gates of heaven.
Ashamed of their idolatry, and being brought to the lowest depths of wretchedness through the remorseless tyranny which afflicted them, the people of Israel were brought to a public acknowledgment of their sin. The long-neglected altar of God was thronged by penitents, saying, “We have sinned against thee, both because we have forsaken our God, and also served Baalim” (verse 10). We cannot doubt that their consciences were truly at work, and that many among the Israelites were stung with a sincere remorse. But it is sad that as long as their prosperity lasted, they never gave themselves to repentance. It was only under the pressure of calamity that they sought the Lord; and as soon as He had removed their plague, they returned to their old ways. Nevertheless, “he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath” (Ps. 78:38).
On this, as on former occasions, the people’s confessions were not unheard; although the Lord’s answer to them was not at first an answer of peace, but of rebuke. He recounted many instances of His saving grace at work on their behalf, delivering them from the hands of various enemies. But in spite of all these deliverances, and in spite of their own often-repeated promises; they had not only fallen into idolatry once again, but they had plunged into more grievous idolatry than at any former period. “Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen,” said the Lord; “let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation” (verse 14). This rebuke was richly merited. But just as every promise of blessing is conditional; so also, every threatening contains a reserve of mercy to the penitent – whether or not it is expressed. Nevertheless, the people did not abandon themselves to despair. Instead, they encouraged each other in promoting public reformation. They banished the idols from holding any place in their homes, and they returned to the pure and simple worship of the one true God. And this was not a mere transient amendment. This reformation seems to have been more permanent than previous repentances had been. Indeed, the threat of being left to groan helplessly under the miseries of servitude to a nation so relentless as the Ammonites must have been sufficient in itself to arouse them to repentance. Wherever these fierce enemies forced their way, massacres and devastation of every kind would have attended their steps. A nation whose chief idol demanded their own little children to be burned alive was not likely to treat vanquished enemies with compassion. It is true that the Israelites had brought all this misery upon themselves. But of the heavenly Father, it is recorded that when they cried to Him in their distress, “his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel.” There is hope when sinners cry to the Lord for help! Therefore, let the trembling sinner and the despairing backslider cast themselves upon the mercy of our Savior! Let them humble themselves under His hand, seek deliverance from the powers of darkness, and separate themselves from sin. Let them use the means of grace diligently, and wait for the Lord’s time; and then they shall certainly rejoice in His mercy!
Matters were now coming to a crisis, and the total subjugation of Israel seemed inevitable. The Ammonites raised a war-cry and formed an encampment in the pasture-grounds of Gilead. But the Israelites had been strengthened by repentance! They no longer abandoned themselves to despair, but commenced active preparations against the enemy. They formed a camp at Mizpeh, the ancient landmark of Jacob (Gen. 31:43-55). But there was a great perplexity, for they were without a captain to lead them to victory. If only a qualified man could be found – in the presence of such a formidable enemy, they would put aside all their petty differences and proclaim him head of all the tribes east of the Jordan River. But where could such a man be found? The answer is in the next chapter!
Lord, we see Your unequalled love and tender sympathy with Your people, for You were grieved for the misery of Israel. We thank You that in Your love and pity, You took human flesh upon Yourself and redeemed us from our sins! Amen.
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