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TEXT: Judges 3:7-11
SUBJECT: Judges #3: Othniel
Three weeks ago we began a Christ-centered study of the Book of Judges. I call it Christ-centered because our Lord is its one and only Hero. If Gideon of Samson does a mighty deed it is because Christ is at work in him. Left to themselves, they cast idols and spend the night with a prostitute. What our Lord said to His disciples is equally true of the Judge—and of you and me too:
Without Me, you can do nothing.
The first two-plus chapters introduce the Book. They say God gave the land to Israel but the people had a hard time holding onto it. The source of their problem was not the power of Canaanite armies, but the weakness of their own faith. As long as they serve the Lord, they have peace and prosperity; when they quit serving Him, they have nothing but misery. The pattern set at the beginning is followed to the end:
--Israel is at peace
--They sin against the Lord
--The Lord punishes them
--The Lord rescues them
--Israel is at peace
If this sounds familiar to you, it ought to, because it is not just the pattern for Judges, but for the whole Bible. It begins with man at peace with God, himself, his wife, and the world. Man then falls into sin and brings down the curse of God. God then rescues man from his sin and misery, and they all live happily ever after.
If you want to get the Bible’s big picture, memorize four words: Garden, Wilderness, Cross, Heaven. This is how the whole Word of God is structured, and the Book of Judges in particular. It is not, therefore, a collection of several stories, so much, as it is One Story looked at from several angles. In a word, it is the Story of Salvation, and this means: it’s all about Christ.
Today we look at the first telling of the Story. It’s main human character is one of the Bible’s best—and least known—men. His name is Othniel. Before we get to him, however, let’s begin at the beginning.
The story starts with Israel at peace. Under the leadership of Joshua, and later the tribe of Judah, Israel took the land God gave them, beating powerful armies some of which had the atomic weapons of the day: Iron Chariots. Canaan was a rich land, flowing with milk and honey, the Bible says, with bunches of grapes so many and fat it took two men to carry them!
Israel had much to be thankful for, but they were not thankful. What they were is complacent or smug and self-satisfied. They were so fond of the blessings they had, they forgot where they came from, v.7—
They forgot the Lord their God.
This means they forgot what He had done for them. They forgot He saved them from their masters in Egypt; they forgot He parted the Red Sea for them and sent the waters crashing down on Pharaoh’s army; they forgot He gave them manna in the wilderness and fetched water from a Rock.
They forgot He split the Jordan River and made the walls of Jericho tumble down; they forgot all the victories He gave them; they forgot the land they were now living off of so well, was the gift of His grace. They forgot all the good He had given them—including Himself. For the Lord was not only the Giver of every good gift but was Himself the dearest Gift of all. He was the Lord their God. If He ruled every nation, He loved only one. At Mount Sinai He said Israel was His—
Special treasure, above all people.
They did not remember all these things because they did not care to. Their history with God was not an obscure thing hidden in old dusty books. No, He had done His mighty works for them and for their parents!
They put all of this out of the minds because, well, it’s hard to look your spouse in the eye when you’re in love with someone else. Israel was married to the Lord, but they were having an affair with—
The Baals and Asherahs.
Baal was a fertility god and Asherah was his girlfriend. By honoring them—the Canaanites believed—their wives would bear many children and their land would produce a bumper crop every year.
If the Canaanites believed this, Israel knew better. The Lord is the True Giver of Life. He has life in Himself and gives life to all things. In the beginning He commanded the seas to teem with life, for birds to fill the air, and for cattle and creeping things to cover the earth.
Near the end of the Creation Week, He made man out of the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him. Then He gave Adam a wife and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with life!
The Lord loves life and He hates death. On the border of Canaan, He confronted the people with a choice: He Himself had made it and He wanted them to make the same one themselves—
I have set before you life and death…therefore choose life that both you and your descendants may live.
In choosing the Baals, however, the people were choosing death.
How many of them were involved? It would be flattering to say only a few: flattering, but not true. Looking at the details of the story makes me think pretty much the whole nation had quit the Lord in favor of the Baals. Not every single person, of course, but a great majority of the people had done just that. Not under the pressures of poverty and sickness and war, but of prosperity, health, and peace.
Remember this the next time you resent your problems. If comfort is comfortable, and easy is easy, neither one is safe, Deuteronomy 32:15--
But Jeshuran grew fat and kicked;
You grew fat, you grew thick,
You are covered with fat;
Then he forsook God who made him,
And scornfully esteem
The Rock of his salvation.
The Lord gets mad at His people and He punishes them for their sin, v.8—
Therefore the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and He sold them into the hand of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia; and the children of Israel served Cushan-Rishathaim eight years.
The key word is served. The children of Israel were supposed to be servants of God, but because they would not serve Him, they became slaves of men. If they don’t like an easy yoke, let them carry a heavy one for a time!
The man they served was Cushan-Rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia.
Rishathaim is not the man’s surname—like Tudor or Windsor—but a title. It means Double-wickedness. Cushan is something like Ivan the Terrible of Russian infamy; or, if you prefer comic books, Ming the Merciless. Note the contrast: they could have served the good Lord, but they chose to serve a wicked man.
The man’s other name is Cushan. This means he was a Cushite, a Cushite from Babylon, and that means he was heir to another man’s throne: the other man is…Nimrod, the world’s first and most notorious dictator. Once again, mark the contrast: God called Israel out of Mesopotamia to save them from men like Nimrod, and here they are, in their own land, serving one of his successors!
Cushan is the king of Mesopotamia, another word that made the devout Jew shudder. Mesopotamia is where the Jews came from, but when they lived there, they were not Jews (which means, ‘God’s Praise’); they were idolaters. When Abraham’s servant was sent to fetch a wife for Isaac, he asked his master if he could take Isaac with him to Mesopotamia. Here’s what Abraham said—
Beware that you do not take my son back there!
Many years later, Mesopotamia became first a prison house and then a graveyard to Israel. Again the contrast: By serving the Lord, Israel is safe in its own land; by deserting Him, they become prey to foreign peoples.
The occupation was a hard one, and a long one too, lasting eight years. Eight years of planting a field and having other men eat the bread; eight years of tending vines and others drinking the wine; eight years of watching sons toil for their masters; eight years of standing by helplessly as daughters are hauled off for the amusement of bored soldiers.
They forgot that sin yields a harvest of sorrow. They are not alone. It does the same thing to us, and not only brazen sins, but the more respectable ones as well. No sin is more respectable than the love of money. And no sin will hurt you and your family more than the love of money. Three verses come to mind:
For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
He who is greedy of gain troubles his own house.
You cannot serve God and Mammon.
After eight years of oppression, v.9—
The children of Israel cried out to the Lord.
What was the cause of their cry? It would be nice to say they cried out of hearts full of deep spiritual remorse and for the glory of God to shine in the defeat of the foreign king. But I wonder if that’s what they felt? Judging by the whole book, doesn’t it seem more likely they were crying out for relief? Of course they were sorry for what they had done (and the fix it had gotten them into) but I doubt their sorrow was as deep as it should have been.
But look here: God’s mercy does not depend on the depth of their sorrow. Or of yours either. On this point the Puritans were not at their best. While paying lip service to justification by faith alone, they often tied it to a deep repentance. Until a man felt super guilty and super helpless and super desperate, he was not repenting and he would not be saved. Thus men were turned inward, to examine their guilt instead of turning to Christ to have their guilt taken away!
If God’s mercy was no deeper than our repentance, we could not be saved. For we never repent enough or deeply enough. But Christ died to atone for our shallow and irregular repentances!
The Lord is a Father to Israel, eagerly waiting for them to turn their heads His way, and receive His mercy! Jeremiah lived in his people’s darkest days, but even then—after centuries of rebelling against their Father—the Lord looked on His people as dear children and yearned for their good—
If Ephraim My dear son?
Is he a pleasant child?
For though I spoke against him
I earnestly remember him still.
Therefore, My heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the Lord.
What did the Prodigal Son’s father require of him? Did he have to prove how sorry he was? Did he have to pay his father back? Did he have to make elaborate promises? Did he have to bow and scrape and grovel? He didn’t. All he had to do is turn to his father, and the father did the rest!
How generous the man was to his rotten kid! We’re the rotten kids and the man is God!
When the people cried to God for help, He didn’t say, Well, maybe. In fact, He didn’t say anything at all: He did something, v.9b--
When the children of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the children of Israel, who delivered them, Othniel, the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.
If the people are crying for salvation, they are not saving themselves. Only the Lord can do this, and note how decisively and quickly He does it. No sooner do they cry for help than He sends it.
The savior is named Othniel. The Word tells us very little about the man, but what it tells us packs quite a punch.
First it says he is related to Caleb, either his younger brother or the son of his younger brother. The verse can be read either way and it doesn’t matter all that much. What matters is that, though Othniel, the Lord is carrying on the work of Caleb. Caleb is now an old man retired in Judah. But if Caleb can no longer fight the battles of the Lord, Othniel can! The Lord does not depend on any one man, but He can be counted on to raise up leaders in every generation.
Like David, the Reformers, Puritans, Spurgeon, and others served their own generation by the will of God and then fell asleep. We ought to respect them and learn from them, but we don’t need them. Instead of hankering after the past, we ought to pray for the present—
Pray the Lord of the harvest would send laborers into His harvest.
If Caleb belonged to the Tribe of Judah, so did Othniel. This points back to the prophecy of Jacob and ahead to its fulfillment in Christ. As he lay dying, Jacob called his twelve sons to himself to receive his blessing. Being the firstborn, Ruben must have thought he would have the best one. But he didn’t. Being his favorite son, Joseph might have hoped for the best one himself, but he didn’t get it either. The primacy went to Judah—
Judah, you are he whom your brothers will praise…The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet.
If Judah will the first in rule, let it be first in war! So the first Judge is from Judah. But Othniel is no king and his rule dies when he does, forty years later. God’s choice of him, therefore, points to another Lion from the Tribe of Judah, our Lord Jesus Christ.
There’s one last thing about Othniel that is often overlooked. At the end of v.9, it says he was the son of Kenaz. What does this mean? It does not mean his father’s name was Kenaz! Kenaz is the name of a foreign nation, thus Caleb was not a Jew by birth. But wait a minute: I just said he belonged to the tribe of Judah and now I say he’s not a Jew. Right. He’s a convert to Israel, a proselyte is the word for it.
This is very interesting. The first savior God raised up is related both to Israel and to the Gentiles. That’s a first. But not a last! If you read Matthew 1, you’ll find another Savior is the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. If you go to Luke 3, you’ll find the same Savior is the Son of Adam. The Savior is connected both to Israel and to the world. Connected to Abraham and David He can save His People from their sins; connected to Adam, He becomes the Savior of the world.
How did Othniel save his people? He must have recruited men, chosen officers, provided food, and hit on a plan. But none of these things are named because his success lay somewhere else, or to put a finer point on it, it lay with Someone else; v.10 says whom—
The Spirit of the Lord came upon him and he judged Israel. He went out to war and the Lord delivered Cushan-Rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia, into his hand.
By saying, ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ and ‘the Lord delivered’, the writer of Judges wants us to see it was not Othniel who saved Israel, but the Lord Himself! Salvation then and now and always,
Belongs to the Lord.
If the coming of God’s Spirit on an sinful man enabled him to save his people from a mighty and cruel king, what do suppose the Spirit might do if He came on a sinless Man and came—not in part and for a time—but in full and forever? I think He would make that Man the Savior. One day, in a run-down synagogue in a hick town, a poor Man read from Isaiah 61,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me to preach
The gospel to the poor,
He has sent Me to heal the
To preach deliverance to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are
To preach the acceptable year of the
Then he preached the shortest sermon in the world and also the best:
Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
That Man is our Lord Jesus Christ, and what Othniel did in part and for a time, He did once and for all! He is Jesus Christ, not because His parents were named ‘Mr. And Mrs. Christ’, but because He is the Christ and this means the One Anointed by God’s Spirit!
When Cushan-Rishathaim was polished off, Othniel did not retire to his farm and swap war stories. No, he went on the finish the work God called him to do. A Judge is not only a soldier, he is also a ruler or perhaps ‘reformer’ is the better word.
For forty years he ruled Israel, not because he was the king, but because God was, and by His Spirit He ruled His people through the man who saved them from their enemies. The savior is also lord.
This is what God made Othniel for a time, and what He has made Christ forever: Lord and Savior. If He is your Savior, He is also your Lord, not He wants to be your Lord, but He is your Lord. If He is your Lord, obey Him, and obey Him from the heart because He is also your Savior—at the cost of His own life.
The Othniel Story ends with the people at rest. The Jesus Story ends the same way:
Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you!
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