To what can we liken the days of the Old Testament judges? Israel’s tribes--regional powers bound by a common heritage--brings to mind the early days of the United States. After the Revolutionary War, the original thirteen states joined together under the Articles of Confederation. The challenges of coordinating the various interests soon proved greater than the original structure could handle. The result was the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the United States Constitution that forms the basis of our national government.
Israel’s history under the judges eventually led to a stronger, more centralized government also. The monarchy that begins with Saul and flourishes under David and Solomon marked the height of Israel’s political power. As we continue our readings, we will find that as with any human government, Israel’s rule only as good as the people who embody it. Pay attention to how Israel’s scriptures record its national history.
Old Testament Readings: Judges 7-21
Our readings in Judges present the stories of more of Israel’s judges from its early years in the Promised Land. These accounts are vivid portrayals of heroic military victories secured by God’s power. Yet each demonstrates a moral flaw or weakness that undermines his success as a ruler on God’s behalf.
With God’s help Gideon vanquishes the oppressing Midianites and righteously declines when offered Israel’s kingship, Gideon righteously declines: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). Yet in his pride Gideon succumbs to a less-obvious snare: he collects gold from the spoils of battle and fashions for himself a golden ephod that becomes an idol for the peoples’ adulation (8:25-27). As if in spiritual consequence, the generation after Gideon ends ignominiously. Abimelech, one of Gideon’s seventy sons, conspires with the people of Shechem to slay his brothers and establish himself as king. But the alliance soon sours, and both Abimelech and the Shechemites meet their destruction (chh. 8-9).
Later God raises up Jephthah to fight against the Ammonites. Jephthah prays to the Lord for success, vowing to sacrifice as a burnt offering “whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace” (11:30). The vow is irrevocable and tragic, resulting in the unnecessary death of his daughter.
Samson, the last judge in the book, is the quintessential strong man. The stories celebrate his physical power, military victories, and sexual appetite. But Samson’s romantic dalliances become his undoing. He forfeits his advantage to the seductive Delilah and becomes a blind prisoner of the Phillistines. Samson’s final action redeems him: he prays to the Lord for strength, then pulls down the pillars of the house, killing himself and 3,000 foes of Israel.
The period of time recounted in Judges is decidedly transitional. Israel has entered its land, but it does not yet enjoy stability and security. Instead of a unified national existence under a strong leader like Moses or Joshua, the various tribes live in a loose confederation, uniting in common cause only occasionally, to address the military threats from rival peoples. The rule of those judges whom God raises up seems to be regional and episodic, not national and sustained.
Furthermore, the decline in judges’ piety from Othniel (ch.3) to Samson (chh. 14-16) suggests that this lack of centralized rule makes Israel’s moral ills steadily increase. By the conclusion of Judges, the narration makes this point explicitly: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25; cf. 17:6, 18:1, 19:1). The author seems to indicate that nation will recover its calling to be God’s chosen people, holy and set apart, only when it makes the transition to monarchy described in the books that follow.
New Testament Readings: Luke 22-24; Acts 1-2
We conclude our reading of Luke’s Gospel with his account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. We see Luke’s artistry in some narrative touches, as when he portrays Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s denial: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord . . .” (Luke 22:61). On Jesus’ trek to Golgotha, Luke depicts Simon of Cyrene in a posture of discipleship, “carry[ing the cross] behind Jesus (23:26; cf. 9:23), and he provides Jesus’ address to the lamenting women who follow him (23:27-31). Throughout these chapters Luke continues to emphasize the gospel’s availability to outsiders (Simon of Cyrene, the criminal [23:39-43], and the centurion [23:47]) and its radical inclusion of women. Indeed, the faithful women who accompanied Jesus from Galilee follow him to the Cross (23:49), observe his entombment (23:55), discover the empty tomb (24:2), and so precede even the apostles as the first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection (24:10).
Only Luke tells of Jesus’ resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus. After walking and talking with him for hours, the disciples recognize their risen Lord only at table, when “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:30). The experience connects the risen Christ not only with the church’s ongoing celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but also with the reading of scripture: “’Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” (24:32). For Luke, the scriptures are the key to understanding Jesus: Old Testament prophecies bear witness to Messiah (23:25-27); and Jesus own words, reflected upon later (24:6,9 and 24:44-48) remind his disciples that his death and resurrection are part of God’s plan for the world’s redemption.
As we conclude Luke and begin the Acts of the Apostles, we make the turn into the second volume of Luke’s “orderly account” (Luke 1:1) of the Good News. The last event in Luke is the first event in Acts: Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Luke 24:50 describes it as occurring on the day of resurrection; Acts 1:3 tells us that Jesus appeared to the disciples “during forty days.” More important than the timing is the manner of Jesus’ departure: an ascent “into heaven” that portends his return “in the same way” (Acts 1:10-12). The “two men in white robes” (1:10) signal an angelic proclamation and echo the scene at the empty tomb (Luke 24:4), providing continuity and suggesting that this departure is part of the same divine redemptive work as the resurrection.
In setting the stage for the events that follow, Acts 1 names the apostles (1:12-13) and numbers the crowd of believers at 120 (1:15). It asserts Peter as the primary leader as he addresses the disciples and calls for the prayerful discernment of a new apostle (Matthias, 1:26) to replace Judas. Importantly, the new apostle must have accompanied Jesus “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” so that he can join the others as “a witness with us to [Jesus’] resurrection” (1:22). This function--witness to the resurrection--must have been foremost among all the apostolic qualities: the church’s early proclamation depended upon the credible testimony of those who had known Jesus before and experienced Jesus after his resurrection.
The account of the Day of Pentecost is dynamic, virtually cinematic. Both visual and auditory elements convey the primary effect of the Spirit upon the community: power to communicate God’s truth. “All of them were filled with Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (2:4). “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (2:11). This experience of intercultural communication equips the disciples to fulfill Jesus’ parting command: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).
Peter recognizes the Pentecost miracle as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (2:17-21), and he addresses the gathering with his proclamation of Jesus as Messiah (2:22-36), calling upon the gathered Israelites to repent and be baptized (2:38). Some three thousand heed his call and “[devote] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:41-42). The chapter ends with a summary description of the early church, characterized by generosity, worship, fellowship, and growth.
Psalms: 17, 146, 21
Psalm 17 portrays the intimate trust of a righteous person in the Lord’s saving power. The speaker cries to the Lord with “lips free of deceit” (v.1); “my mouth does not transgress” (v.3). In contrast, “the wicked . . . my deadly enemies . . . speak arrogantly” (vv.9-10). In trust the righteous can count on God to “confront them, overthrow them” (v.15). The prayer that the Lord would “guard me as the apple of the eye” (v.8) finds its answer in the closing verse: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness” (v.15).
Psalm 146 begins and ends with the same Hebrew word: hallelujah, “praise the Lord!” This hymn calls upon the faithful to join in lifelong praise to the Lord, who “will reign forever, . . . to all generations” (v.10). Trusting in human power is futile, since it is limited in scope (vv.3-4). The psalm characterizes the generous and faithful love of God, who, though eternal and almighty, “executes justice for the oppressed” (vv.7-9). Such a God is truly worthy of all our praise.
Psalm 21 is of the type known as a royal psalm—one that celebrates the attributes of the king’s rule as an expression of God’s blessing. Signs of God’s favor to the king include God’s responsiveness to his prayer (v.2), the blessing of his rule (v.3), life and length of days (v.4), and victory over enemies (vv.8-12). The theological basis for this celebration is found in the central verse: “For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the steadfast love of the Most high he shall not be moved” (v.7). This view—that the king’s rule expresses and depends on God’s rule—justifies this celebration of the king’s power.