Judges for You by Timothy Keller

judges-for-you

Some books of the Bible are incredibly inspiring… others are downright disturbing. Judges definitely the latter. It’s a painfully honest look at the fruit of spiritual decline and the depths of human depravity. This isn’t a book you read to get a warm-fuzzy or for moral examples.

Instead, writes Tim Keller, Judges reminds us that the Bible “is about a God of mercy and long-suffering, who continually works in and through us despite our constant resistance to his purposes.” No human hero can rescue us—we need a divine one.

That’s what Judges For You is all about.

The cycle of sin

In this book, Keller walks readers through this Old Testament book, tracing six key themes:

  1. God relentlessly offers his grace to people who do not deserve it, seek it, or even appreciate it after they’ve been saved by it.
  2. God wants lordship over every area of our lives, not just some.
  3. There is a tension between grace and law, between conditionality and unconditionality.
  4. There is a need for continual spiritual renewal in our lives here on earth, and a way to make that a reality.
  5. We need a true Savior, to which all human saviors point, through their flaws and strengths.
  6. God is in charge, no matter what it looks like.

As we read through Judges, it’s easy to see each of these themes at play in their half-hearted (at best!) following of the Lord. From the beginning, the Israelites failed to purge the Promised Land of idols, compromising their prosperity in the land—and most importantly, their commitment to the Lord. From there the cycle begins:

The nation slips into idolatry, doing evil in the sight of the Lord. Angered by their sin, the Lord hands them over to their enemies, who oppress them. The people call out for rescue, and the Lord brings salvation through a chosen leader and peace is restored to the land… at least until the judge dies.

The thorns dug deeper and deeper; the snares pulled Israel more and more tightly,” Keller writes. “The rebellion becomes worse, the oppression heavier, the repentance less heartfelt, the judges themselves more flawed, and the salvation and ‘revivals they bring weaker.'”

It is a reminder, of course, that we need something better than a human judge; something more permanent than a leader who dies; something that can deliver the soul, as well as the body.

This is arguably the most important point Keller makes in Judges For You, and it’s one he comes back to again and again through the book as he guides readers through the stories of each increasingly flawed judge of Israel.

Gideon’s strength in weakness

This is best illustrated in his take two of the later judges, Gideon and Samson (two whom he devotes a considerable amount of space).

Gideon in particular is one person I really struggle to know what to do with. On the one hand, he’s listed as an example of faith in Hebrews 11, yet the end of his life hardly can be called an example of a faithful man. So what’s the deal?

The incident with the fleece is one of the things that’s always bothered me about Gideon. It seems like in his two-fold request he’s testing the Lord, asking for little signs and signals. But is he? Keller says no. “Gideon… was asking for supernatural revelation from God to show him who he really is.” He continues:

This therefore is not about how to make a decision. This is about how we need to ask God to give us a big picture of who he is. Living in the period of history we do, we have the advantage over Gideon of knowing Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as he reveals himself in his word: “In the past [including the time of Gideon] God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Maybe I’m easy to please, but this is the first satisfying explanation of Gideon’s actions I’ve read thus far (and I say this as someone who’s leaned closer to viewing his actions as sinful testing). Gideon, Keller says, was asking “for help to build up his faith.”

When we, like Gideon, find ourselves doubting God’s promises, or God’s presence, we can ask him to point us again to his Son, saying: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This is what Gideon needed, and received. God will do the same for us.

Gideon’s ruin, caused by success

Nevertheless, as we see God rescue his wayward people through Gideon and turn him into the mighty warrior he declared him to be in Judges 6, we see a change in Gideon. He gradually becomes confident—and then overconfident. Pride takes root, as Keller points out in Gideon’s responses to Ephraim’s snubbing of his leadership and to Succoth and Peniel’s refusal to help him in pursuing the Midianites. Against Ephraim he holds his tongue, but against Succoth and Peniel, he promises destruction.

This reveals that Gideon’s diplomacy regarding Ephraim was not because he did not want to strike at them, but because he could not. And it reveals that, despite God making sure that the victory was so miraculous that everyone should have seen that it was given by God, not earned by Gideon, Gideon himself has forgotten “the lesson of the 300.” He feels that he ought to receive admiration and honor for what he has done.

In other words, success destroyed him. And it only got worse as he set himself up as king over Israel (in practice, even if not in title). He took for himself multiple wives, made for himself an ephod (a priestly garment) had over 70 children, and even went so far as to name one Abimelech—”son of the king”!

Yet Gideon, in his strengths and weaknesses, points us to Jesus. In his (positive) weakness, we see our dependency on Christ to build our faith. In his (negative) confidence, we see the humility of Christ—the King who had every right to demand service, but instead served.

A devotional commentary

Ideal for personal and small group study, as well as an excellent aid in sermon preparation, Judges For You might best be called a devotional commentary. Through Keller’s examination of the text and through the reader’s personal study, he wants us to see the glory of Christ in and through Judges. To see our need for Him and to grow in our desire to worship and obey Him. It’s hard not to walk away from the book seeing all of these things. Get this book and read carefully.


Title: Judges For You
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2013)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books