By Jason Herring
The time of the Judges were dark days for the children of Israel. Moses and Joshua were dead. The Exodus from Egypt and the Conquest of Canaan were distant legends of a bygone generation. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been replaced or at best supplemented with the false gods of the Amorites. Pagan groves and idols dotted the landscape of the once monotheistic tribes. And thus began a cycle. God would allow them to be subjugated by a Canaanite nation. Israel would eventually repent and cry out to God, and God would raise up a judge to deliver them from their oppression. And as long as the judge was alive and presided, the children of Israel would remain faithful to their covenant with God. But with the death of the deliverer the nation would plunge into apostasy, and the cycle would repeat itself all over again.
One of most spectacular stories in the Book of Judges is the story of Deborah and Barak. For 20 years the Israelites had been “harshly oppressed” by the king of Canaan and his commander Sisera. With 900 chariots of iron, Sisera easily cowered the tribes into submission. From the Song of Deborah, we learn that there wasn’t a shield or spear to be found among 40,000 in Israel. One of the ways that Sisera terrorized the Israelites was to position archers around the watering places. By controlling the water supply, he controlled Israel.
Chapters four and five of Judges give us the Cliff’s Notes version of this epic moment in the history of the chosen people, but there are enough clues left for us to get a bigger picture than what might be noticed by the casual reader. We know that Sisera’s mother was waiting on him to return back from the battle with the spoils of war that would certainly include women for his harem or sex slaves. If this was to be expected after the battle, we can only imagine how this had played out over the course of two decades. In fact, it is interesting that this is the only time in the Book of Judges that they were said to be “harshly oppressed,” which indicates that this was the worst of the times of bondage.
Deliverance finally comes when God sends word through the prophetess, Deborah, to raise an army and fight against Sisera and his invincible chariots of iron. Deborah summons Barak to lead an army of 10,000 men to Mount Tabor to draw Sisera into a fight. Barak agrees to command the suicide mission but only if Deborah will be there in person. Deborah agrees to go, but tells Barak that the glory of victory will go to a woman and not himself.
The call to arms goes out to the tribes and 10,000 men from Zebulun and Naphtali assemble on the slopes of Mount Tabor to face the mounted forces of Canaan. An unseasonable storm rolled in that made the Valley of Jezreel a mud bog, incapacitating the armor-plated chariots of the Canaanite army. As the army tried to retreat back across the Kishon River that was now swollen over its banks, they were swept away in the current. Those who weren’t slain in the muck of the battlefield, drowned in the river. Sisera seems to have been the sole survivor who fled on foot until he came to the tent of Heber the Kenite where he was received by Jael – the woman of the house. Jael gave him a jug of milk and a place to rest where he quickly passed out from fatigue. Seeing that the fugitive was fast asleep, Jael took a tent spike and drove it through his temple, thus ending the twenty-year reign of terror on Israel.
In the Song of Deborah there is an interesting footnote concerning the tribe of Reuben when the call to arms was issued:
“For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.” – Judges 5:15-16, KJV
I can imagine the Reubenites thinking about glory on the battlefield and the righteous cause of their brethren. They had great thoughts of heart. They knew what they should do. They knew what must be done. They wanted to do the right thing. But they didn’t. They remained with their sheep, watching over their herds, while their brothers “jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.”
Would it have made a difference in the outcome of the battle? No. Israel won a complete and total victory over Sisera and the army of Canaan. But it would have made a difference for the men of Reuben. Did Barak and Deborah need Reuben to be there? In hindsight, no. But Reuben needed to be there. It was their duty.
So here’s a few thoughts on Reuben’s great thoughts of heart.
Be understanding of the times and seasons. The men of Issachar had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, and there is a time and season for everything. What do shepherds do? They abide in their field and keep watch over their flocks. That’s what shepherds do. Except when there is a national crisis. Except when it is a time for battle. Except when there is a giant standing in the Valley of Elah, defying the living God of Israel. Except then. Then you leave your flocks and go meet the crisis. Know the times and seasons.
It’s not the thought that counts. Maybe you can say, “It’s the thought that counts” to your co-worker who forgot to remember your birthday, but you won’t be able to say that when you stand before your Creator. When Ebenezer Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Past how he almost went after Belle, the one great love of his life, the Ghost tells him: “’Almost’ carries no weight. Especially in matters of the heart.” How very true. And great thoughts of heart carry no weight – especially in matters of eternity.
The great thoughts of today become the great regrets of tomorrow if they are never put into action. What are you called to do that every single child of God is called to do? Are you doing your duty before God as a Christian? What are you uniquely called to do as an individual? What is this season of life asking of you? Are you fulfilling God’s purpose for your life? What would you most like to do for God? For your family? For your church? For your community? What are you waiting for?