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The best definition of success

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Judges 4:1–24

Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower, thought there should be an annual day to honor fathers. She went to local churches, shopkeepers, and government officials with her idea. She was successful: Washington State celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on June 19, 1910. President Nixon made the day a permanent national holiday in 1972.

Father’s Day is now that annual holiday when you try to find gifts that your father doesn’t have but would want. Another tie is probably not on the list.

You might consider a wi-fi coffeemaker, which your father can program through an app on his smartphone. Or rent him a day in a classic car (I would choose the 1974 Ford Bronco for $225). Or give him a day at car racing school.

As we think about gifts for fathers, let’s also consider what our heavenly Father wants fathers to give their children. There are two commitments we can make to God that will directly influence our families and our culture. Each of them is vital to the health of our souls as well. Together, they define a life a life well-lived.

As we continue our series in Judges, this week we come to a woman who changed the world. We will learn from her example how fathers and the rest of us can do the same.

Risk your present to the God of the future

Last week’s sin pattern persists in this week’s study: the judge dies, and the people return to their sins (Judges 4:1). God must bring judgment and punishment; this time he “sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor” (Judges 4:2).

Hazor was situated in the northern region of the Promised Land, in the area inhabited by the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun (v. 6; Joshua 19:32-39). Joshua had earlier exterminated its residents; it was the only city in that region which he destroyed by fire (Joshua 11:11–13). Later the Jabin Dynasty recovered power and restored the city. Solomon would later make it a fortified city and raise a levy to pay for the project (1 Kings 9:15). Its precise location is still disputed today, and several sites are suggested by archaeologists.

The commander of Jabin’s army was named Sisera (not a Canaanite name; perhaps he was a mercenary from a nearby nation). He commanded “nine hundred iron chariots,” perhaps a broad military coalition rather than the forces of a single city. Such an army is known to history; Pharaoh Thutmose III boasted of capturing 924 chariots at the battle of Megiddo in the fifteenth century BC.

These iron chariots gave Sisera and his soldiers complete advantage over the agrarian Hebrews. They could not outrun a chariot or defeat its protected driver in battle. So Sisera “cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years” until “they cried to the Lord for help” (Judges 4:3).

The only judge who was a prophet

His answer came in an unusual form: “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time” (v. 4). Her name means “Bee.” She is the only judge to be identified as a “prophet,” but not the only woman in the Bible with this ministry. Miriam (Exodus 15:20) was before her, and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and Philip’s “four daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9) would follow after her.

A “prophet” or “prophetess” was less a foreteller of the future and more a forthteller of God’s word. The spiritual gift of “prophecy” and office of “prophet” can be linked to the ministry of preaching today (cf. Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:6). In our text, Deborah functioned as one who gave God’s word to his people.

She was also “leading Israel” as a judge during this time: “She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided” (Judges 4:5). Other judges took their places of authority in the city gate; she held court under a palm tree. Her location was considerably south of Hazor, which may explain the fact that she was able to lead Israel from her palm tree while they were being oppressed by Jabin’s army to the north.

Deborah could have preserved her position and security, but her countrymen in the northern tribes were being oppressed and God had compassion on them. He used his prophetess to give his word to “Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali” (v. 6a). He lived in the region directly affected by Sisera and was apparently a likely choice to lead a rebellion against his oppression.

Deborah’s word came directly from God: “Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor” (v. 6b). This was a mighty army for the time. They were to hide atop Mount Tabor, 1843 feet above sea level, situated at the border between the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali and thus accessible to all.

God would then “lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands” (v. 7). The heavy, iron-clad chariots would perhaps founder in the plain along the Kishon, especially if heavy rains came (cf. Judges 5:4 (NIV), where “the clouds poured down water”). Sisera would think he was chasing his adversaries into a dead-end, but the defeat would be his.

All Barak was called to do was obey and the victory would be his, but he refused to lead the army’s rebellion unless Deborah went with him (Judges 4:8). So, she spoke prophetically again: “Very well, I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman” (v. 9).

Barak and Deborah led their army up the mountain and down into battle against Sisera, and “the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword” (v. 15). Barak pursued Sisera’s army back to their general’s home of Harosheth Haggoyim, and all fell by the sword (v. 16).

Lessons learned from a prophet of God

From this part of our story we learn two important facts. One: God will use anyone who will follow him by obedient faith. Neither Deborah nor Barak did anything to earn their selection as leaders of God’s people.

It was the same for Abraham, the father of their nation: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you'” (Genesis 12:1). There is absolutely no indication that this future father to more than half of the world’s religious population did anything to earn this call on his life. He didn’t graduate from Harvard Law on his way to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Neither Abram, Deborah, or Barak had resumes, lists of achievements, merit with God.

Such is the pattern of Scripture. Noah saved the human race, then planted a vineyard and got drunk; Moses ran from Egyptian authorities for forty years before returning to free his people from them; Bathsheba overshadows Goliath on David’s resume; Peter denied Christ before he preached him; Saul murdered Christians before he taught them.

God uses the usable. He does not call the equipped—he equips the called. If God could call Deborah and Barak, what’s to keep him from calling you?

A second fact emerges from this part of our narrative: Obedience is the key to victory with God. If Barak and Deborah had been unwilling to climb Mount Tabor, they could not have ridden down its elevation to victory over Sisera. If they had not done what God said, when he said it, how he said it, they would have lost the battle.

Armies must follow their leaders if they are to be successful. Athletes must obey their coaches if they are to improve. Students must follow their teachers’ direction if they are to learn. We must follow God if he is to lead us.

Mother Teresa was opening an orphanage in New York City, and a press conference broke out. One reporter shouted the question, “How will you measure the success of this work?” The tiny nun turned to the camera, smiled, and said, “I don’t believe our Lord ever spoke of success. He spoke only of faithfulness in love.” Success is obedience with God.

Risk your present to God’s future, and you’ll have his victory.

Risk your future to the God of the present (Judges 4:17–24)

The battle was over, the forces of Deborah and Barak victorious. But Sisera was still on the run. And he knew where to go to hide.

“Heber the Kenite” had moved from his ancestral home in the southern part of Canaan to the northern area, to alight himself with Jabin king of Hazor (vv. 11, 17). “Kenite” means metalworker, perhaps indicating that Heber was an engineer partly responsible for creating the king’s fleet of iron chariots.

Sisera knew where Heber lived, and assumed he would be given safe haven. He found Heber’s wife at the foot of the tent. Jael (her name meant “Mountain Goat”) welcomed him inside. In their culture, only her father or husband would be permitted inside her tent, so the forces of Deborah and Barak would not think to look there for the general. She gave him goat’s milk for his thirst, enticing him to nap.

She then took the only implements available to her, a tent peg and hammer, and used them to kill the mighty general. In this way Deborah’s prophecy came to pass: the Lord handed Sisera over to a woman (v. 9). And the greatest enemy Israel knew was destroyed by the wife of one of their greatest traitors.

Jael is truly an unsung hero of Scripture. Her part in the story reminds us that God will use all who will be used, and that obedience is the key to success. What tent peg and hammer has he put into your hand this week?

This courageous woman could have acted to protect her security and relationship with her husband. She could have allowed Sisera to escape, and none would have blamed her. She risked her marriage and family, with no promise of material provision. She could have lost her home and even her life if her husband caught her in the act of killing Sisera. She trusted her future to the God of the present. And he continues to make her name great today.

What about the future most worries you today? Where is God leading you on an uncertain path? Where are you challenged to trust him with the results of your obedience? If you are faithful in tithes and offerings, will your financial needs be met? If you are willing to share your faith, will your friend still be your friend? If you are faithful to use your gifts for ministry, will you have time for your family and career?

Jael trusted her present to the God of the future and invites us to join her today. Remember: all of God there is, is in this moment.

Conclusion

If we trust our present to the God of the future, and our future to the God of the present, we position ourselves to be used by our Lord in transformative ways. Fathers can give their children no greater blessing. Children can pay their fathers no higher honor.

God will use anyone who will be used. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

Think about it: the wealthiest man in Dallas is no more important to God than his gardener. Name the last five Nobel Peace Prize winners, or the Super Bowl champions of two years ago, or the World Series champions last year, or the monarch of Great Britain before Queen Elizabeth II. Every one of us can change the world. But only if we seek his will and surrender to his voice. Only if we measure success by obedience.

Do you?