The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Marty Jacumin's Sermon Delivery class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The only constraints on this sermon were that it be between 15 and 25 minutes long, and be on a text from the Old Testament. Video and its audio are from an old MacBook Pro pointed at the podium. Dedicated audio is from my iPhone in my shirt pocket.
Let us pray. Gracious Father: thank you for revealing yourself to us, especially in your Son, our Lord; and for filling us with your Spirit so that we may know you truly. As we come to your word tonight, help us know you more deeply and worship you more faithfully. In Christ’s name, amen.
Please open your Bibles to Judges, chapter 3. And as you turn there, I want you to think about these words:
Boring exegesis must be wrong when the texts are so obviously full of life.
Boring exegesis must be wrong when the texts are so obviously full of life.
That’s N. T. Wright, speaking of the Pauline epistles. But I think, equally applicable whenever we come to God’s word—especially in preaching and teaching—and most especially when the texts are like this one: lively, to say the least; strange, even.
I have two goals for this sermon. The first—always the first—is to show the grace of God clearly. As Bryan Chappell, the author Christ-Centered Preaching, puts it, we want to see how God did for his people then what they could not do for themselves; and through that to be be reminded of what he has done for us, that we could not do for ourselves. That’s the point of this sermon: God’s grace in Christ.
But secondarily—thinking about boring exegesis; thinking about hard texts like Judges 3—I hope to encourage you that these texts, these strange texts, these sometimes difficult texts—they’re for us, and for our good. They’re for our people, and our people’s good. We don’t need to ashamed of them, or embarrassed by them, or intimidated by them. Rather, we can come away seeing how these texts magnify the grace of God, how these texts remind us to look to Christ.
Othniel: The first judge
So let’s look and see. This is a long passage, with three judges—Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar—so we’ll take each in turn. Read with me, starting in verse 7:
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The Spirit of the LORD was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died.
This first narrative is probably the easiest to understand. Othniel is the first judge. He is the prototype for all the other judges that follow. His story shows out the pattern for the whole book, the same one the author laid out back in chapter 2: sin, discipline, a cry for mercy, and God’s deliverance through a judge.
Verse 7: Israel sins. They forgot Yahweh their God. They served the Ba’als and the Asheroth instead of the God who had delivered them from Egypt.
That’s an interesting word choice: forgot—and it’s an important word, not only in this passage, but throughout the Bible. After all the reminders in the covenant: Set up these stones so you remember! Teach your children, so they remember. Bind it on your hands and your forehead, so you remember! And they forgot.
Othniel is Caleb’s brother, note. They forgot in the first generation they were in the land.
When we forget, we get things wrong. You’ve seen it happen: a spouse forgets an anniversary, and spends some time “in the dog house.” Or parents who miss a school event for their children, and leave them feeling like they don’t matter. Forgetting a friend’s birthday: maybe you’re not as close as you thought.
And sometimes… we all forget who God is, what he has done for us, and what our relationship to him is as the covenant people of God. We find ourselves fixated on the approval of the people in the pews, on the applause of subscribers to our popular podcast, on the affirmation of our professional peers. We become idolaters—just like Israel.
But he showed them mercy. How? “He sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia”—not mercy the way we might be inclined to think of it, but real, deep mercy.
Because: see what happens? It had the intended effect. They remembered Yahweh and called out to him. And he delivered them—both from the pagan King, and from their idolatry, at least for a time! The Spirit came on Othniel, and he led Israel to war, and God delivered them from Cushan-rishathaim, and they had peace for forty years.
God delivered his people, and Othniel, this first judge, was a good judge. He wasn’t a prophet like Moses; he didn’t give them lasting rest, any more than Joshua had (40 years is good, but it’s not forever); and he didn’t circumcise their hearts. Not the judge then. A good judge, but not the judge.
Ehud: The assassin
Sadly, he was also the best of the Judges. Things only go downhill from here. Who’s next? Ehud: the assassin. Let’s read again, picking up in verse 12:
And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and went and defeated Israel. And they took possession of the city of palms. And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.
Then the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, and the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length, and he bound it on his right thigh under his clothes. And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people who carried the tribute. But he himself turned back at the idols near Gilgal and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And he commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. And Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out. Then Ehud went out into the porch and closed the doors of the roof chamber behind him and locked them. When he had gone, the servants came, and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “Surely he is relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” And they waited till they were embarrassed. But when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them, and there lay their lord dead on the floor.
Ehud escaped while they delayed, and he passed beyond the idols and escaped to Seirah. When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim. Then the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was their leader. And he said to them, “Follow after me, for the LORD has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites and did not allow anyone to pass over. And they killed at that time about 10,000 of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.
We see the same pattern again here… sort of. We see Israel sin, and God discipline them. And we see Israel cry out to their covenant God, and we see him deliver them.
But of course, Ehud’s story is more complicated than Othniel’s was. Some of the details here might initially perplex us. Why do we hear about how fat the king is? Why do we hear about the dung coming out after he gets stabbed? Why almost any of the extraneous-seeming details in this story?
Well, this is satire. (Which doesn’t make it untrue, of course.) The author plays up the ridiculous elements in this bit of history to make a point.
What do we see here?
A conquering king! …
- who’s actually morbidly obese, not exactly a strapping warrior
- who, so cunning he could forge an alliance with the Ammonites and Amalekites, gets fooled by a simple trick (“Oh king, I have secret message for you”)—he’s either hopelessly naive or profoundly overconfident; neither is good
- a man who so comically out of line with what a king should be that his servants don’t even notice when there’s a wretched stench and he takes a looong time relieving himself
And his servants? They aren’t exactly top-drawer. They don’t even notice Ehud escaping after he assassinated their king…
If we read the story right, it’s humorous. The author is poking fun at the Moabites! “Those Moabites!”
But, wait… those Moabites conquered Israel. This ridiculous Moabite king?… Ehud was there to bring him tribute.
Israel is the real joke. The idolaters who got conquered by this king. Ouch.
This is what good satire does. It sneaks in, makes you laugh, and then hits you where it counts.
And what about Ehud himself? What about this savior figure? He’s not good either. He’s a vicious assassin, a traitor who stabbed the man he was legally supposed to be serving.
This story is messy. Not just because of the dung coming out. But because while yes, God did deliver his people, and that is good—but Ehud isn’t the kind of deliverer we want, not the kind of deliverer we need.
Not the brutal killer, but the one who was brutally killed.
Not the one who defeated a foreign king by stabbing him in the gut, but the one who overcame both the pagan oppressor and the idolatry that led to that oppression by being stabbed, by taking the weapon to his gut.
The book of Judges shows us over and over again what we’re like left to our own purposes. How even our human saviors are woefully insufficient. The covenant hope, proclaimed from the start of Genesis and made so clear in Deuteronomy… was still waiting to be fulfilled.
Shamgar & Unifying Theme
And then we come to the end of this chapter—to Shamgar: the man with an ox-goad and his one verse: verse 31.
After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel.
So if you’re like me, you’re wondering at least two things about this passage. One is: what in the world is an oxgoad? That’s the easy one: It’s a cattle prod. A long wooden pole with a point on the end. Makes for a decent improvised spear.
But the other question, the bigger question, is why does Ehud get paragraphs, with lurid details for a satire… and Shamgar gets just one sentence?
We have a man who, based on his name, doesn’t even seem to be an Israelity, who shows up, kills 600 Philistines with an ox-goad, and then he’s gone. He gets one mention in Deborah’s song in chapter 5, but basically, this is it.
So why mention him at all if he’s so seemingly unimportant? Why these proportions?
After all, this is the inspired word of God. And the author had a reason for giving us these stories, even these proportions. He’s making a point.
We read this and I, for one, think, “Oh, that sounds interesting; how did he do that with a cattle pr—” “NO. That’s not the question.” He slams the door on that question.
Shamgar’s skill with an ox-goad is not the point, any more than Ehud’s skill as an assassin was the point, any more even than Othniel’s skill as a military leadership was the point. No more, I put it to you, than any of us are the point.
“And he also saved Israel.” Those words tell us what we need to know. Who saved Israel? Shamgar… Ehud… Othniel… but really, in every case, Yahweh. The covenant-keeping God, who saved Israel not only from 600 Philistines, not only from a Moabite king worthy of derision, not only from a mighty king of Mesopotamia—but from her idolatry.
Summary and Exhortation
Someday—someday, after many judges, many kings, many priests, many prophets—there would come a deliverer—a judge, a prophet, a priest, a king—
- who would give the land rest, who would give the people of God true rest, for more than just a generation; forever…
- who would be a wise king
- who would be gentle and gracious ruler
- who would give God’s people circumcised hearts
- who would fulfill the covenant hopes and take on himself the covenant curses of Deuteronony, of Exodus, of Genesis
We have that deliverer. We have Christ. “And he also saved Israel.” So when we read, when we teach, when we preach, let us look, every time, and see what God did for his people that they could not do for themselves. Let us, in every passage, in every picture of grace, find a reminder of what God has done for us in Christ, that we could not do for ourselves.
We have a deliverer. Don’t forget. Don’t let your people forget. We have a deliverer.
Gracious Father: thank you for delivering us. Help us be faithful with your word. Help us remember, and help us remind your people, of how you have delivered us. In the name of Jesus, our savior, amen.