Before the curtain opens on Act II of the Old Testament and the need for God’s people in God’s Country to be ruled by God’s King, it is worth looking back on the story to see what has happened to the human heart since Eden. Many things, of course, have gone wrong, but most of them stem from our broken dominion, the cultural mandate misfiring in the hearts of mankind. Our relationship with power—the power that once was ours—has become twisted.
Our meaning and purpose as humans is found in our identity as image-bearers, representatives of God’s reign, royal regents exercising dominion over God’s world to extend the blessing and life and joy of his kingdom to the ends of the earth. Our power as God’s representatives was given to us for the purpose of cultivating and extending that fruitfulness in each other and in God’s world. Our dominion was designed to be driven not by craving—after all, in a perfect world, what lack would there be to hunger for?—but by the eager desire to bend blessing outward to others.
But with the Fall, everything changed. Dethroned from our position of dominion, every human heart now has a cavernous longing for the authority that once was ours. The unquenchable desire deep within you for acclaim and admiration and accolades is your heart’s open wound of kingship lost. As we’ve seen before, philosopher Blaise Pascal identified this ache as the ache of absent authority: “Who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king? All these miseries prove man’s greatness. They are the miseries of a great lord, of a deposed king.” The reason you are discontented with your life is because you were made for more. Think on this for a moment: a dog is perfectly content being a dog, and is untroubled by desires and goals out of its reach, because a dog was only created to be a dog and nothing higher. And yet you and every other person you know is hounded by a gnawing hunger for more, for better, for greater, because you were, in fact, made for more and better and greater things. You are no mere bag of flesh and appetite, destined to live and eat and die. You are exiled royalty, with an immortal heart clawing against its cage of futility, haunted by the irrepressible memory of the kingdom for which you were made.
Because of this desperation, our relationship with the authority that once was ours has become twisted, and rather than embracing God’s definition of dominion we have followed in the path of our reptilian overlord, hungering to use and abuse power for our own selfish ends. Satan’s strategy for power—to seize it and wield it to advance his own personal kingdom—has taken deep root in our hearts, and has become our almost inescapably default desire. We live with our defenses up and our claws out, deeply wounded and deeply wounding. We demand our own way, and we either sulk or sin when we don’t get it. We innately believe that might makes right, that the strong survive, that meekness is weakness. We are drawn to outward beauty and visible strength and we despise such invisible qualities as “humility” and “servanthood” (and even when we claim to prize those character traits, deep down it’s usually only as a means to our own desired end).
Yet God’s kingdom runs on an entirely different set of values. We have embraced the upside-down value systems of hell so thoroughly that the way God talks about reality seem strange: the last shall be first, you gain your life by losing it, gentleness is true strength, the meek inherit the earth, etc. In God’s economy, it’s the broken who are beautiful, the humble who are happy, the weak who are strong. We find this bizarre and utterly foreign to the “real world” that we inhabit: the world of supermodels and celebrities and politicians and Disney princesses who are all achieving their dreams by following their hearts and discovering how wonderful they are. It takes a thousand pages of biblical history, seeing how God patiently works with backwards humanity, to learn the lesson that God’s not the one who’s upside down; we are.
THE WINDING ROAD TO REDEMPTION
The road back to Eden, therefore is not a straight line. God does not move from Abraham to glory. There is history that has to happen first, a nation to be formed, promises to be given and kept. Think back to the previous chapter of God restoring a Place for his people, and how strange and circuitous God’s dealings with humanity are. The incomprehensibly vast promise of Genesis 12 starts off small and stays small for a long time. Abraham grows tired of waiting on God to deliver on his promise, so he takes matters into his own hands and impregnates one of his servants. Then, oblivious to his crime, he adds insult to injury by blithely presenting his son Ishmael to God as the child of promise: “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:18). God is not impressed with Abraham’s initiative and reiterates that fulfillment of the promise comes not through trying but trusting. It’s a massively humbling moment for Abraham, a humbling that is necessary, since humble trust is an essential virtue of God’s Kingdom.
Then the next generation comes, and Abraham’s son Isaac naturally assumes that his eldest son Esau is going to inherit the birthright and blessing because, well, the oldest and strongest is obviously the best, right? Wrong. God chooses the youngest, not because Jacob is anything special (believe me, he’s not), but simply because he’s the opposite of what Satan’s upside-down value system demands. Once again, God is patiently undoing the serpent’s hold on the human heart, showing how his kingdom works.
And as if to underline the point of all these stories, the next great serpent-crushing promise comes in Genesis 50. An astounding inheritance is given to the tempestuous middle child born to scheming Jacob. From Judah’s line a king would come, a restored global ruler who would take up the reins of a restored global kingdom:
Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Genesis 50:10)
Here is the next step of God’s dealings with humanity, his quest to restore human dominion. The woman’s seed who will crush the head of the serpent will be none other than a son of Judah, whose foot will press down that reptilian skull into the dust. He will be like a lion, devouring evil for dinner, a universal king under whose banner all the scattered people groups of Babel will be reunited.
Trace the line of promise. The woman’s seed who will crush the serpent’s head is passed down the lineage of grace to Abraham, through whose offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed. Now the line is narrowed further to the family of Judah, from whom will come the King who will take back the crown and scepter that Adam lost. For those with eyes to see it, this is the purpose of all the circuitous history of God’s dealings with the world. The woman’s seed, Abraham’s offspring, Judah’s son, will restore the kingdom and fill the world with God’s blessing once again. Now, as the story progresses, we know what to look for: a serpent-crushing son of Judah who reflects the Edenic values that God prizes so highly. But when we arrive at the book of Judges, it quickly becomes clear that all that fulfillment must still be in the distant future.
THERE WAS NO KING IN ISRAEL
The book of Judges easily wins the title of “Most Violent Book of the Bible.” From one murderous episode to the next, the pages of the narrative drip with the blood of innocent and guilty alike. Yet the gory stories of the book of Judges shouldn’t surprise us and are in fact the point of the whole narrative. With the serpent’s hold on the human heart unshaken, and without God’s King to lead God’s people, the story of God’s people in the Promised Land quickly devolves from fairy tale into nightmare.
The book of Judges is a key hinge point in the Old Testament narrative, designed to show just how badly we need God’s King to lead us. The same death spiral of kinglessness that we have seen play out over and over again in the Old Testament narrative—the descent through Cain’s murderous line, the descent to the flood, the descent to Babel—is repeated here in graphic detail, proving that we need more than God’s Country; we must have God’s King to lead us. The book cascades down from the promising beginnings of God’s people in God’s Country, through a series of decreasingly impressive judges, each one worse than the one before, to the final crash landing in a horror scene of idolatry, rape, murder, and genocide. Above it all flies the repeated banner verse: “There was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” With no king, there can only be chaos.
Let’s trace the downward spiral, to see how the well-known and less well-known characters and stories of Judges fit into the grand story of kinglessness. After settling in the Promised Land alongside the pagan nations that they failed to drive out, “there arose another generation who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). Thus begins the repeated cycle of Judges: the people’s disobedience, followed by God’s discipline, followed by the people’s desperation, followed by deliverance by a judge that God raises up… and then the cycle repeats. The main point we’re supposed to see, however, is that each cycle is a little worse than the one before it, each judge a little more corrupt or cowardly than the one before him. The cycle begins with a faithful (and obscure ) deliverer named Othniel, followed by another faithful (although more violent) judge named Ehud, followed by even more violent Shamgar, followed by cowardly Barak, then even more cowardly (and ultimately idolatrous) Gideon, whose cruel sons plunge Israel into anarchy, out of which comes Jepthah—whose twisted view of God has more in common with the Canaanites than it does with truth—and after him the worst of the worst (and somehow most famous), Samson. Reading the account of Samson, we’re supposed to see how every single thing he does is wrong, from repeatedly violating his Nazarite vows, to taking foreign wives, to retaliating against his enemies with merciless and murderous vengeance. Read the story of Samson in Judges 13-16 and see writ large the same rapacious appetites of the serpent’s seed that we saw in Genesis 4-11. The family of Abraham, from whom the serpent-crushing, world-blessing seed was supposed to come, now looks no different from the rest of enslaved mankind.
And it gets worse. The book of Judges concludes with a gruesome episode seemingly ripped from the plotline of a slasher horror movie. A Levite—the family tasked with preserving the integrity of Israel’s worship—sets up an idolatrous altar and takes a concubine for himself. Then, through a violent turn of events that mirrors the perverted bloodlust of Sodom and Gomorrah, his concubine ends up gang-raped and murdered. Outraged, this Levite cuts up the concubine’s beaten, mangled body (I told you the story was gruesome) and sends the pieces throughout the land of Israel, calling for vengeance. The people of Israel respond with a genocidal civil war in which the entire tribe of Benjamin is exterminated. And thus ends the happy tale of the book of Judges.
To those wondering why in the world such stories are included in God’s Word, the answer comes in the sentence repeated throughout the final climactic horror story: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This is the end result of demonic enslavement: God’s regal image-bearers reduced to anarchy and depravity. There can be no hope for humanity without a king to sit on the throne and reclaim the lost dominion of Adam. But there is no king in sight, and the satanic snake still sits on Adam’s throne, his ruthless reign of terror unchallenged, his upside-down values firmly entrenched even in the hearts of God’s chosen people.
FROM THE ASHES
Here we see the biblical story at its darkest and most desperate, the promise seemingly extinguished under the avalanche of human evil. And yet, just like at every other dark and desperate moment, it turns out that God has been working in and through that darkness to sow the seeds of evil’s demise. Turn the page from Judges to the little book of Ruth, which begins with the ominous words, “In the days when the judges ruled…” And yet it turns out that the tale of Ruth is a love story, a little ray of light amidst the turmoil and bloodshed of Judges.
And when you come to the end of the book, a short genealogy explodes with significance. It just so happens that the hero of the story, Boaz, is descended from Judah (remember the promise in Genesis 50?). And from his union with the foreigner Ruth, the lineage of grace unexpectedly reemerges:
Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. (Ruth 4:22)
Behind the scenes, once again, God has been shepherding the promise onward. And now, for those who know how the story goes, the end goal is on the horizon: David, the king after God’s own heart, is in sight.
Here amidst the ashes of the book of Judges, the darkness and ruination of God’s people in God’s promised land, it feels appropriate to once again quote that line from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
The ending of the book of Ruth turns our focus to the approaching fulfillment of the hopes of the entire story up until this point. Here at last comes God’s King who alone can lead God’s people back into the kingdom that once was theirs.