When I was a kid, there was a feature of the movie-going experience that has long since fallen away: the intermission. Intermission was a few-minute period in the middle of the movie when the film would be paused, allowing viewers opportunity to stretch their legs, take a bathroom break, or head back for a top-up of popcorn and Slush Puppy. They may have been a necessary feature of older reel technology—I’m not sure—but they were certainly a regular feature of the movie-going experience.
I suppose that one benefit of an intermission might be for the avid film critic to reflect on what had transpired in the first part of the film and to anticipate what might come.
Judges 10:1–5 serves as something of an intermission in the story of the judges. In these verses, we read the very brief story of two judges—Tola and Jair—whose ministries serve as something of a hinge between the first part of the book and the second. This section is linked to Abimelech (of whom we learned in chapter 9) in v. 1 and to Jephthah (the next judge) in v. 3 by mention of Gilead.
More importantly, for our purposes, these verses serve as a helpful insight into times of intermission in our own lives. The 45-year period covered in these verses seem to have been years of relative peace in Israel. The big question is, how would Israel respond in a time of peace? There was opportunity to take stock of their past and to make corrections going forward. But would they use their opportunity well?
God sometimes brings us to seasons of relative peace and calm in our lives and gives us opportunity to reflect in order to re-engage for what lies ahead. The Lord’s Day is one such opportunity, during which there is opportunity to rest and reflect on the week past in order to re-engage for the week ahead. The end-of-year holiday season is often a time for the same. We have opportunity to pause from the usual busyness of life, to reflect on how we have responded to God’s grace in the year past, and to prepare to re-engage in the year ahead. How do we use those opportunities? I trust that Tola and Jair will help us in this regard.
Tola: Restoring Order
First, in the judgeship of Tola, we find a story of order restored: “After Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola the son of Puah, son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, and he lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim. And he judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried at Shamir” (10:1–2).
We can say very little about Tola with any certainty. We know the names of his father (Puah) and grandfather (Dodo) and that he was from the tribe of Issachar. We know that “he lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim.” Apart from a reference to this city being given to Ephraim (Joshua 15:48), there is no other mention of a city by this name in the Bible. Some have appealed to linguistic support to suggest that it was an older name for Samaria, but we cannot know for sure. We know that he judged Israel for 23 years and then died.
The key to understanding Tola’s judgeship is the reference to Abimelech: “After Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola.” We have grown accustomed to a particular formula in Judges, in which an oppressive power is mentioned and the judge rises to deliver Israel from the oppressive power. Ordinarily, the oppressive power is identified as a foreign nation, but here the oppressive power is an Israelite: Abimelech.
We saw last time that God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and his followers, which resulted in chaos in the land. Crime and anarchy became the norm and eventually things spiralled into civil war. When Abimelech was finally killed in war, the people were thrown into disarray. Unsure of where to turn next, and with no clear leader on the horizon, they all simply returned home.
Tola stepped up to rescue God’s people from the chaos and disarray that Abimelech brought about. He is not a man who is widely remembered or celebrated. No New York Times bestseller biography was written of him. He was simply a faithful Israelite who went about the task of helping to restore order where chaos reigned.
Take a moment to note that Tola didn’t need to have an earth-shattering, world famous ministry in order to be of help to God’s people. He simply needed to be faithful where God had called him. He was and God blessed his faithfulness.
In our day and age of celebrity, we are tempted to think that we can only be useful in God’s kingdom by doing great things that are recognised in great ways by a great number of people. We have forgotten that, more often than not, God simply wants us to be faithful where he has placed us and that he blesses faithfulness to be a blessing to his people.
Churches sometimes go through seasons of great difficulty, which sometimes threaten to tear the church apart at the seams. Families and individuals sometimes experience the same thing. When that happens, what is required more than anything is faithful Christians quietly doing what God has called them to do in order to help order to be restored.
When a church goes through a time of upheaval, members have a choice: They can be a part of the problem by backbiting and complaining and gossiping, or they can be a part of the solution by quietly and faithfully continuing to make disciples.
When we see families or church members going through times of upheaval, we can criticise them for not having the faith they need to face their difficulties, or we can quietly and faithfully come alongside them and do what we can do to help restore order.
We should note here that God raised up a leader to help restore the order. In the midst of its conflict, Israel was in no position to lift itself out of chaos. Someone needed to step into the chaos in order to help. And to be helped, Israel needed to receive the assistance offered by Tola. They needed to follow his leadership in order for order to be restored.
It is not always easy in the midst of turmoil to see a way out. More often than not, we need a Tola to come alongside and help us. We need someone who recognises the chaos, but who also can see order restored, to faithfully guide us to the point where peace can return to our disordered lives. The God-ordained place for that to happen is the local church.
Jair: Squandering Opportunity
Tola faithfully laboured for 23 years to restore order to a nation plagued by chaos. Like all the judges, he died and was buried. But he had done a great work and had evidently left Israel in a time of prosperity. Enter Jair: “After him arose Jair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years. And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities, called Havvoth-jair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead. And Jair died and was buried in Kamon” (vv. 3–5).
Like Tola, biographical detail of Jair is sketchy. We know that he was a Gileadite, which means that he hailed from the east of Jordan, where two-and-a-half tribes had asked Moses for land before crossing into the Promised Land. Jephthah, as we will see, was from the same region.
Jair judged Israel for 22 years, and the only other thing we know about him was that his thirty sons rode on thirty donkeys and ruled thirty cities in Gilead. Jair then died and was buried in Kamon.
While we know little about the 22-year reign of Jair, the reference to thirty sons who rode thirty donkeys and ruled thirty cities suggests a time of great prosperity. It took some wealth to not only sire thirty sons but to provide each of those sons with a donkey and a city. Furthermore, there is no reference at all to Jair needing to save Israel from enemies. It seems that Jair reaped the benefits of the order that Tola had restored. Sadly, it appears that he did very little—or perhaps that what he did was insufficiently influential—to prepare Israel for what would come. The nation’s prosperity served as a perfect opportunity to guard against idolatry. Sadly, the opportunity was not seized: “The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the LORD and did not serve him” (v. 6).
Times of peace and prosperity in our lives are God-given opportunities to take stock and to guard against temptations that will lead us into idolatry.
As Christians, we have that opportunity every week on the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Day is designed as a time of rest and reflection as we re-engage for the week ahead. Properly observed—that is, in the context of corporate worship around the ordinary means of grace—the Lord’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the past week and to re-engage for a week of fruitfulness ahead. Every time you participate of the Communion meal, you have opportunity to do just that. You have opportunity to examine where you have sinned and where you have failed, to repent, and to ask God for grace to do better in the week ahead.
As we draw close to the end of the year, many of us will have opportunity for a break. During this time, there is wonderful opportunity to reflect on the year past and to prepare properly to re-engage for the year ahead. What will you do with that opportunity? Will you use it to ask some truly evaluative questions? What opportunities has God given you in the past year to invest in the kingdom by making disciples? What have you done with those opportunities? Have you faithfully taken opportunities to share the gospel with friends and family? Have you seized opportunities to be faithful in your service to the church body? How can you do better? Will you use the holiday season to honestly evaluate your walk with the Lord and with his people in the past year?
Sadly, if Jair’s story is anything to go by, it seems that Israel took the season of prosperity to fatten itself rather than to guard against future idolatry. At no other time in the period of the judges was there opportunity to enrich oneself more than right here, and it appears that that is what Israel chose to do. And while they lived in comfort for a few decades, their prosperity did not guarantee protection from idolatry. Indeed, before long, “the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (v. 6).
Like perhaps no other season on the annual calendar, the Christmas holidays afford many opportunities to enrich ourselves. You may well enter the new year with a few more kilograms, a few more gadgets, and a few less clothes. But will you also take time to ask yourself some important questions? What did I do well this past year? What spiritual disciplines have I developed and maintained? Who have I influenced to follow Jesus? How can I improve my walk with the Lord and my relationships with his people? Have I experienced victory over sin and growth in character and integrity? Do I need to confess sins to others? Do I need to forgive others? What can I do in the coming year to bring glory to God? Questions like these will serve you well going into the new year and may well help guard against the temptation to idolatry.
Be sure of one thing: Times of prosperity are but a season in your life. The Christmas holidays will come to an end. Monday morning follows Sunday. If you use times of prosperity only for self-focus, you will soon forget God. And the moment the next challenge arises, you will find yourself woefully underprepared and prone to idolatry.
Writing centuries after the events recorded here, Paul said that the failures of Israel, and the judgement that befell them, were recorded for our instruction (1 Corinthians 10:1–13). He urged us to learn from Israel’s failures so as not to repeat them but to instead flee from idolatry (v. 14). And how do we do that? We do it by focusing on Christ (vv. 15–17). We do it by remembering his body broken for us and his blood shed for us. Only as we keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ—who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, who was buried, and who rose again the third day according to the Scriptures—will we be able to stand firmly when assaulted with the temptation to idolatry.
God’s grace is available to help you overcome temptation, but you must take opportunity to properly reflect so that you can properly re-engage as you enter a world hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ.