When Samuel wrote that there was no king in Israel, he was speaking on two levels. First, it was the time before kings reigned in Israel; second, it was the time before the rule of Judges, when the people were already refusing to be ruled by God—except, as we said, for the remnant of grace sprinkled among the tribes.
The last five chapters of the book of Judges also served to explain the divine purpose for the six captivities that required Judges to set the people free. Each captivity meant that the Israelites were being ruled by foreign kings.
God had told Moses in Numbers 33:51-53,
51 Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, “When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; 53 and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.”
He warned further in verse 54 that if they failed to drive out the Canaanites, they would become “as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides.” When the time came for Israel to invade Canaan, they promised to obey God, but they failed to drive out the Canaanites. Judah and Simeon took some land from the Philistines, but they were unable to take Gaza and Ashkelon. Benjamin defeated the king of Jerusalem but allowed the Jebusites to remain there. Ephraim took Bethel but then grew tired of fighting.
God Tests Israel
By the time Joshua and Eleazar died, there was still much land to be conquered, and Canaanites still abounded in the land, particularly in the territory allotted to the tribe of Dan that was still occupied by the Philistines.
Strangely enough, Judges 3:1 says, “Now these are the nations which the Lord left to test Israel by them.” God took the credit for Israel’s failure to fulfill the mandate under Moses. God’s purpose was to “test Israel.” Judges 3:4 repeats this, saying,
4 They were for testing Israel, to find out if they would obey the commandments of the Lord, which He had commanded their fathers through Moses.
I have had some such experience in my own life, where God says to do something but then makes it impossible to do so. We tend to blame ourselves, if indeed we have a conscience, but if we understand the sovereignty of God, we are able to see this side of God. Few understand the mind of God in this. After all, we are told that “God would not do such a thing,” or “You just need to try harder.” Such “solutions” are usually based on men’s traditions (understanding).
Samuel knew the sovereignty of God, even if most of the Israelites did not. He knew that God had withheld from Israel the full victory, forcing the people to coexist with the Canaanites. Why? It was to see if the Israelites could resist the influences and temptations to become lawless and to slide into immorality and idolatry. In other words, if their hearts were right, and if the law was written on their hearts, then they would be a positive influence on the Canaanites—not the other way around.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people were religious but not truly spiritual. Paul says that “the law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14), so true spirituality is being lawful, whereas being religious is legalistic and ultimately unlawful. As we will see shortly, the opening story in Judges 17:1-6 shows the religious spirit that dominated Israel.
Judges 3:5-7 says,
5 The sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; 6 and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. 7 And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God, and served the Baals and the Ashteroth.
The next verse then tell us that God brought about Israel’s first captivity to the king of Mesopotamia because of their adoption of Canaanite religious culture. It was the same reason for all of the other captivities until the days of Samuel.
The New Covenant Perspective
When the Israelites were formed into a nation at Mount Horeb on the day later remembered as Pentecost, the people had the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant “sword of the Spirit.” However, God did not give them eyes to see or ears to hear (Deut. 29:4), and so the people were too frightened to approach God in the fire (Exodus 20:18-21).
Because of this, they failed to hear the law and to have it written upon their hearts. The result was that God wrote the law on tablets of stone so that the people could at least receive the law externally. This was the Old Covenant arrangement, where the people would have to read and meditate upon the word of God and pray that the Holy Spirit would transfer the law from the stone tablets to the tablets of their heart.
Few did this, of course. Only the remnant of grace did so. The nation as a whole rejected the sword of the Spirit and were given carnal swords with which to conquer Canaan. But God never intended that the flesh would succeed fully, so He prevented them from displacing most of the Canaanites. The “testing” was designed to show the Israelites that the flesh would always fail and that they ought to seek a better way, which we know today as the New Covenant way.
Theoretically, if the Israelites had become a New Covenant nation at Sinai, they would have had the faith to enter the Promised Land when the 12 spies gave their report at Kadesh-barnea. The report came on the 50th Jubilee from Adam, so they ought to have blown the trumpet of the Jubilee, signaling that every man was about to return to his lost inheritance in Canaan.
If the Jubilee trumpet had been blown at that time, Israel would have entered the land five days later on the Feast of Tabernacles with glorified bodies. As sons of God, they would have wielded the sword of the Spirit and conquered the Canaanites, not by death and destruction, but by the preaching of the word. The Canaanites would have seen the glory of God manifested in these sons of God, and they would have been converted to the God of Israel.
But the Israelites did not have the faith to enter God’s rest at that time. Only two spies gave a good report, and the people believed the evil report of the other ten spies. They were motivated by Old Covenant fear rather than by New Covenant faith. Thus, they turned the Jubilee into a Day of Atonement, where each year they were required to fast and repent for their lack of faith and for refusing to enter the Kingdom.
The greater Kingdom was postponed to a later time, and God then raised up a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:18, 19 and Acts 3:22, 23) to accomplish what Moses himself could not do. When Jesus finished His work, He commissioned His disciples to do what the Israelites could not do under Moses. Matt. 28:18-20 says,
18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In other words, Jesus commissioned His disciples to preach the word, and soon thereafter, they received the sword of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This reversed the failed pattern of Israel at Mount Horeb. The disciples did what Israel might have done, if it had been possible for them to hear the word spoken from the Mount and thereby receive the New Covenant.
This shows that God was not truly interested in killing Canaanites but in converting them and all other nations by the demonstration of the Spirit and by the teaching of the word. We must view the Canaanite wars in that context, and I believe this is also why God tested the hearts of the Israelites by leaving most of the Canaanites in the land.
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