Continuing our look at the Old Testament Historical Books, we begin today our study of the book of Judges. Judges covers a period of approximately 250 years between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel, the last judge of Israel (c. 1360–1110 BC), a period in which there was no single leader of national Israel. Instead, the people of Israel were largely divided, following local tribal judges. It was a time of stirring interventions by the Lord and an era of great disobedience on the part of the Israelites. And the message of this period and the book of Judges is clear—without a king in Israel, everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judg. 21:25).
The invasion of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership firmly established Israel in the promised land. However, when Joshua died, much territory remained in Canaanite hands, and the successive generations were tasked with completing the conquest (Josh. 13:1–7; 23). The people naturally wanted to know who would be their new leader against the Canaanites, and God identified Judah as the tribe that would go up first against the Canaanites and guide Israel to victory (Judg. 1:1–2). This confirmed the prophecy Jacob spoke centuries earlier that Judah would be the ruling tribe in Israel (Gen. 49:8–12), and it revealed to the ancient Israelites that the true king would come from Judah’s line. Even today, Judges 1:1–2 tells God’s people that we must look to the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Jesus Christ, as our King (Matt. 1:1–17).
Most of the rest of Judges 1 describes Judah’s initial successes against the Canaanites after Joshua’s death (vv. 3–26). By and large, Judah, in concert with the tribes of Simeon and Benjamin, continued the conquest. The chapter, however, hints at trouble in Canaan. We are told that Judah “could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron” (v. 19). But we know that the mere existence of chariots of iron was not the real problem. God had promised to drive out the Canaanites even though they had chariots of iron (Josh. 17:16–18), and He had already proven Himself able to defeat those who had military superiority over Israel (Ex. 14; Josh. 11). The real problem was the people’s lack of trust in the Lord. If they had believed Him, the chariots of iron would not have been so threatening.
Judges 1:27–36 details the actions of the northern tribes, who became dominant in their territories and yet did not drive out the peoples of Canaan as they were supposed to (see Num. 33:50–56). Israel was succeeding militarily but failing spiritually.
From a human perspective, the Israelites enjoyed much success against the Canaanites initially after Joshua died. Yet, while they took command of Canaan, they failed to obey the Lord in driving out the peoples of the land. Their outward success was matched by spiritual failure. We must be careful not to evaluate our ministries in terms of outward success. If we attract great crowds but disobey the Lord, we have not succeeded.