At the height of the Cold War, the US Federal Civil Defence Administration funded a short film, which was shown in schools around the country, advising children of how to respond in the event of an atomic attack. The film featured Bert the turtle, who was very alert to danger around him. And what did Bert do when he sensed danger? According to the jingle, Bert would “duck and cover.”
The film goes on to show school children hiding beneath their school desks, hands over their heads, as a means of protection against an atomic bomb and states that, just as the country was prepared to fight fire by means of an effective and equipped fire department, so children could adequately prepare for an atomic blast by simply ducking under their school desks and covering their heads.
Knowing what we know of the atomic bomb, it is ludicrous to think that duck and cover was the plan proposed by the US government for children threatened with atomics. The film is almost laughable, both because the fear of a nuclear war was never realised but also because hiding underneath a school desk would hardly provide adequate protection from nuclear radiation.
Stories from the same era about the merits of installing a personal bomb shelter in one’s backyard might seem equally silly to us. It seems almost paranoid—except that bomb shelters are making something of a comeback. In March 2018, Fine Homebuilding magazine published an advert from Atlas Survival Shelters for personalised bomb shelters. Available in five sizes, catering from 1–6 persons, and starting at a mere $9,999, buyers can choose where to install the shelter. It is recommended that an out-of-state contractor be flown in to install the shelter so as to ensure that its precise location remains a secret.
A bomb shelter is designed as a means of protection in the event of a drastic emergency. One hopes that the bomb shelter will never be necessary, but just in case all else fails and drastic measures are called for, it is a comfort to know that one can rely on the safety of a shelter.
Dale Ralph Davis describes the scene in Judges 10:6–16 as “bomb-shelter religion.” In the account before us, the people of Israel seem to have believed that God would of course be available to save them in the event of an emergency, regardless of their failure to obey the terms of their covenant with him. They were in for a shock.
Previously, we considered 10:1–5 and the ministries of Tola and Jair. We saw that Tola successfully rescued Israel from the anarchy into which Abimelech had plunged the people (chapter 9) and that, by the time Jair assumed the judgeship of Israel, life was good in the land. The people lived comfortably, as is evident from Jair’s affluence.
But times of affluence present unique opportunities for apostasy. As Wiersbe observes, “comfortable living often produces weak character.” It certainly did in the history of Israel at this point, as is evident from vv. 6–16.
A series of interactions unfold in the text before us, which highlight Israel’s misunderstanding of its covenant relationship with God and its reliance on bomb shelter Christianity.
First, we read of Israel’s apostasy: “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).
Readers familiar with 1 and 2 Kings are well-acquainted with the story of Ahab, Israel’s most notorious king. Israel’s first king, Jeroboam, had set the nation on a course toward deep idolatry. Every other king that followed is compared to Jeroboam and said to have followed in his steps. But Ahab considered it “a light thing … to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat” (1 Kings 16:31). He was determined to outdo all the evil that had preceded him.
A similar notion is presented in the text before us. Israel had previously served various Baals and Ashtaroth, but this generation was determined to outdo its forefathers. As if it were a light thing to serve the Baals and the Ashtaroth, this generation also worshipped Syrian, Sidonian, Moabite, Ammonite, and Philistine gods. In the grand understatement of the entire Judges narrative, “they forsook the LORD and did not serve him.” They utterly abandoned any pretence to serving Yahweh or obeying his commands and gave themselves wholly to idolatry.
In vv. 11–12, the Lord reminds his people of seven oppressive nations from whom he had delivered them. Here, we are told of seven nations whose gods Israel worshipped. They were determined to repay God’s kindness with perfect apostasy. And it all flowed on the heels of great prosperity.
Let’s be careful to note, as observed above, that times of prosperity and affluence are often fertile soil for the fruit of rebellion and apostasy. When things are going well, it is easy for us to forget the Lord, because we have everything that we need. We must take careful heed in times of affluence to acknowledge our dependence on the Lord.
This is a very pertinent warning at this time of year, when the thrill of holidays and the diminished pace of life can lull us into a sense of ease and comfort. If we are not careful with our devotion to the Lord, we may well find ourselves entering a new year so enthralled with the gods of comfort and ease that our devotion to the Lord has been abandoned.
Second, we read of Yahweh’s anger toward Israel’s apostasy:
So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the people of Israel that year. For eighteen years they oppressed all the people of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. And the Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was severely distressed.
The Lord had specifically warned Israel before entering the Promised Land:
If you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: … I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you.
The scene before us is precisely what Yahweh had warned Israel of. They had broken covenant with him, but he remained faithful to his covenant with them, which included covenant curses for disobedience.
The action here is ascribed directly to the Lord: “The anger of the LORD was kindled” so that “he sold them” to their enemies. There is no mistaking the fact that the oppression the people experienced was the direct result of their sin. The Philistines and the Ammonites “crushed” and “oppressed” Israel. The language used here describes a kind of oppression heretofore unseen in Judges. The word translated “crushed” means to utterly shatter and is used only one other time in the Old Testament, when Moses and the Israelites under his leadership sang of the way the Lord had “shatter[ed]” the Egyptians in the exodus (Exodus 15:6).
This crushing oppression persisted for eighteen years east of Jordan before crossing the river into the Promised Land proper. Before long, the Judeans, the Benjamites, and the Ephraimites found themselves as crushingly oppressed and “severely distressed” as the Gileadites on the other side of the river.
We must learn from this that the Lord is always faithful to his covenant, even when his covenant warns of punishment and chastening for sin. We cannot ignore our obligations to him with impunity. He is a kind and loving father, and what kind and loving father will not correct his erring children?
After eighteen years of crushing oppression, Israel finally admitted its wrongdoing: “And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, ‘We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals’” (v. 10).
It was a good start to admit that they had done wrong but, as we will see, admission was not enough. It needed to go further. But before we talk about that, let’s note what was good about this admission.
Note, first, that Israel called their failure for what it was: sin. “We have sinned.” We live in an age in which we tend to minimise the reality of sin by calling it all sorts of other things. We make mistakes. We fail. We are flawed. Nobody’s perfect. All of this is true but, as Christians, we must recognise the reality of sin.
The Westminster Children’s Catechism states plainly, “Sin is disobedience against God’s perfect law by failing to do what God commands or doing what God forbids.” This gets to the heart of the issue. A “mistake” might be a misstep in your division when solving a math problem. A “failure” might be an error in judgement on the rugby field. A “flaw” might be poor programming in a video game that produces an irritating glitch. And, of course, nobody’s perfect, but that may simply mean that you forget to buy milk on the way home from work. Sin, on the other hand, is deliberately violating God’s holy law. It is disobedience, unrighteousness, wickedness, and evildoing. True admission of our guilt requires us to own our sin.
Second, note that the Israelites were careful to admit how they had sinned. They not only admitted thatthey had sinned but confessed that they had done so by forsaking God and serving the Baals. Their admission of guilt was concrete.
When it comes to dealing with sin, we must be careful that we are able to delineate precisely what the sin is with which we are dealing. This is true when we confess our own sin and when we help correct sin in the lives of others. A generalised sense of “offence” is not helpful. I must be willing to admit precisely how I have offended you, or to tell you precisely how you have offended me. Sin must be dealt with in direct, identifiable categories. “I have sinned by doing such-and-such.” “You have sinned in this particular way.” This is the correct way to deal with sin.
Admission of guilt, however, while necessary, is not enough. We see this in the Lord’s response to Israel’s admission.
The fourth element in the story before us is Yahweh’s answer to Israel’s admission of sin:
And the LORD said to the people of Israel, “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.”
The Lord’s answer here stands at odds with what we have come to expect in Judges. A basic pattern has been observed thus far in the narrative: The people have sinned and God has punished them. The people have then cried out to the Lord who has, in turn, raised a judge (see 3:9, 15; etc.). With this pattern as our backdrop, the Lord’s answer here takes us by surprise: “I will save you no more.” The Israelites had devoted themselves to other gods; why were they not trusting those gods to deliver them in their time of need?
The Lord’s response here shows us that admission of guilt, while good and necessary, does not go far enough in dealing with sin. It is possible to admit wrongdoing without actually repenting of wrongdoing. Since we know that the Lord is faithful and just to forgive those who have repented, we can safely assume that the Lord did not find in this admission any real repentance.
This is a theme that is consistently highlighted in Scripture. As one example, consider the story of Job. Job started out well when the time of trial hit. The opening chapter tells us that “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22) and even his wife marvelled that he maintained his integrity in the face of such severe affliction (2:9). As the story progresses, however, Job seems to have grown more and more disillusioned. Eventually, he did accuse God of wrongdoing.
Toward the end of the story, the Lord finally speaks, responding to Job’s accusations. He fires a series of questions at Job, highlighting Job’s ignorance at what he was doing. At the end of the Lord’s first discourse, “Job answered the LORD and said: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand upon my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further’” (40:3–5). He acknowledged that he had spoken wrongly and vowed silence.
But his acknowledgement was not enough. Job had sinned, and while admission of guilt was a good start, it needed to go further. The Lord therefore launched into a second discourse, again firing a series of questions at Job that he could not answer. By the end of the second discourse, Job got it:
Then Job answered the LORD and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Only then did the Lord restore Job’s fortunes. For Job, it was not enough to admit guilt; he needed to repent of his sin. Similarly, while the Israelites had commendably acknowledged and admitted their sin, their admission stopped short of repentance and the Lord was not impressed, for “recognition is not … the same as repentance” (Wilcock).
This is the first clue that Israel had succumbed to bomb shelter religion. They had come to expect that God would of course step in to save them when necessary. All they needed to do what admit that they had done wrong and perhaps make a few changes (v. 16) and God would come through to help them.
I suspect that we are more prone to bomb shelter religion—bomb shelter Christianity—than we like to admit. Bomb shelter Christianity minimises Christian responsibility but promises that God is always on call.
Bomb shelter Christian parents tend to ignore God’s ordinary means of grace throughout the childhood years but suddenly turn to God with weeping and mourning when their young adult children abandon the faith. Bomb shelter Christian husbands ignore God’s instructions to lovingly lead their wives but turn in remorse to the Bible when the marriage begins to crack. Bomb shelter Christian students neglect hard work throughout the year but turn to God in fervent prayer when the pressure of exam season creeps up.
The God of the Bible does not exist for you to ignore him and then to step up to the plate whenever you need him. How many churches swell in numbers around Christmastime or Easter, or for the first few months in the new year when resolutions are still fresh. How many people, who never darken the door of a church, suddenly appeal to churches to baptise their baby or host a funeral for their grandmother. How many people want nothing to do with God, except when they need him. And then they expect him to drop everything to help them if only they jump through a hoop here and there.
Bomb shelter Christianity is all about how we use God. Do you only seek God when you want something? Do you only go to him when circumstances are bad and need to be fixed? Is God nothing more than your last resort for self-help? Do you do what God expects of Christians only because it is what he expects, and not out of a living and loving relationship with him? Then you may be guilty of bomb shelter Christianity.
Don’t get me wrong: We should go to God with our desires. We should plead for his help when circumstances are contrary. God is interested in changing us and enabling us to overcome our sinful habits. We should do what God expects of his people. But all of this should flow from a living relationship with him rather than rote religiosity. If you only turn to God out of bomb shelter religiosity, don’t be surprised when he doesn’t come through. Don’t be surprised when his answer is, “I will save you no more.” Don’t be surprised when he allows you to look to the idols of your heart for deliverance rather than providing it himself.
Perhaps you are tempted to think, “But that is the God of the Old Testament. Surely the God of the New Testament is not so capricious!” The God of the New Testament is more understanding, is he not? More malleable, dare we say it?
Don’t be deceived! It is the God of the New Testament who told Simon the Sorcerer, through his apostles, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money. You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:20–21). It is the God of the New Testament who warns of giving people over to a debased mind if they will not heed him (Romans 1:28) and of sending a strong delusion so that those who want to believe a lie may have a lie to believe (2 Thessalonians 2:11). It is the God of the New Testament who warns of the impossibility of renewed repentance for those who spurn the means of grace available in the local church (Hebrews 6:4–6) and that there is no more sacrifice for sin, but only terrifying judgement, for those who deliberately sin against their knowledge of the truth (Hebrews 10:26–27).
Beware of taking the grace of God for granted! As Davis says, “Sheer tragedy is when people become so accustomed to the mercy of God that they despise it—even, and especially, in the act of seeking it.”
The fifth thing we find here is Israel’s attempt to curry God’s favour, despite his warnings that he would no longer rescue them: “And the people of Israel said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD” (vv. 15–16).
We may be tempted at this point to think that Israel had finally come to repentance, but I think that is a misreading of the text. I say this because of what follows. If this was an expression of heartfelt repentance, we would expect the Lord to forgive the people and provide a deliverer for them, but that is not how the text reads. Indeed, when the Ammonites were called to arms in the next verse, Israel still had no clear leader and, rather than looking to the Lord, they made a concession: Anyone willing to fight would be recognised as their leader. (Side note: Even this was not enough during the judgeship of Samson, when the people wouldn’t follow even though he was willing to fight!)
What was happening here, then? What lay behind Israel’s commitment to “put away the foreign gods from among them” and to “serve the LORD”? Rather than an expression of genuine repentance—and let us not think that “served the LORD” is a claim to exclusive service to the Lord (cf. 2 Kings 17:33)—I think this was more an attempt to secure God’s favour by doing what they knew they should do. They knew what they should do and surely if they just did it God would come through for them. It was classic bomb shelter religion. It was akin to contemporary Christians, under the fire of affliction, thinking that they will secure God’s favour if they only do the right things. “If I just begin reading my Bible, praying, and attending church again, God’s favour is sure to return to me.”
We see more of this attitude in the judgeship of Jephthah, who seems to have risen to Israel’s leadership with very much a bomb shelter approach to leadership. Who can forget his rash vow when he went to fight against the enemy: “If you in fact hand over the Ammonites to me, whoever comes out the doors of my house to greet me when I return safely from the Ammonites will belong to the Lord, and I will offer that person as a burnt offering” (11:30–31, CSB).
We will dissect this vow more in our next study but, for now, observe Jephthah’s rationale: If I just follow the correct formula by making a suitable vow, I can secure God’s favour in battle. The Israelites seem to have fallen into the same trap here, but the Lord was not impressed and did not immediately provide a deliverer.
But all was not hopeless, for the Lord is a gracious God who longs to see the deliverance of his people.
The final element highlighted in the present story is Yahweh’s anguish: “and he became impatient over the misery of Israel” (v. 16).
I am persuaded that there was no genuine show of repentance here, and yet the compassion of the Lord is nevertheless highlighted. Even though they would not turn fully to him, and even though he was fully justified in allowing them to reap the rewards of their apostasy, he took no delight in the suffering of his people. And so, as we will see next time, even though they did not seek his face in appointing a new deliverer, and even though there is no direct reference in the text to the Lord raising Jephthah as Israel’s saviour, nevertheless the Lord chose to work through him to deliver his people. And why? Not because of Israel’s efforts, or even because of a show of repentance of their part, but because of his own compassion. He simply could not bear to see his people suffer any longer.
We need to be persuaded that we serve an innately gracious God who takes no pleasure in the afflictions of his people. For his own wise purposes, and sometimes as a consequence of our own sin, God allows his people to be afflicted. But not forever. As Jeremiah sang, “The LORD will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31–33). And why will he not cast off forever? Not because there is anything deserving in us, but because he is a gracious God. “Because of the LORD’s faithful love we do not perish, for his mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness!” (Lamentations 3:22–23, CSB).
Ultimately, while “God required, and requires still, the steadfast love, loyalty and obedience of his subjects, in which he can operate continually on their behalf, rather than a relationship, lightly severed, in which he is used in times of emergency only” (Arthur Cundall), we do well to remember that Israel’s ultimate hope of deliverance lay not in their ability to do what he required or to respond in a particular way to his grace but in the reliability of his steadfast love. “Our hope does not rest in the sincerity of our repentance but in the intensity of Yahweh’s compassion” (Davis).
The Lord could not bear to see his people continually crushed because he felt their pain. As Isaiah wrote, “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Isaiah 63:9).
Do you see what Isaiah says there? He was motivated to save his people because he felt their afflictions. He entered into their suffering. The God who enters human suffering longs to deliver those who suffer.
This is the true purpose and hope of the Christmas season: that, in Christ, God entered human suffering, born of a virgin, in order to deliver those who were in bondage to sin. When he became impatient over the misery of his people, he sent a delivered, not because we deserved one, but out of his overflowing grace and mercy.
Jesus Christ entered into human suffering and is therefore incapable of not sympathising with those who suffer. And because of that great compassion, he is committed to delivering his people. In fact, he was so committed to delivering his people that he went to the cross on behalf of those whom he had come to save. He took their sins upon himself and, having died for sin, rose from the grave so that, as they repent and believe in him, he is able to extend to them the free offer of forgiveness.
Bomb shelter Christianity tries to buy God’s favour by its own merit. Biblical Christianity teaches that you need not and cannot buy God’s favour because Christ, who alone could do so, has already purchased it for those who will believe in him. God’s favour is now bestowed on those who belief purely through repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let me say two things as I bring this study to a close.
First, if you are guilty of bomb shelter Christianity, know that God is not there only to be used in the event of emergency. In fact, beware lest, when you actually need him, he may say to you, “I will save you no more.”
This warning is as necessary for those who frequent church as it is for those who never darken the door of the church. When the writer of Hebrews warned of the impossibility of renewing to repentance those who have fallen away from the truth to which they were exposed (Hebrews 6:4–6), he was writing in the context of the church. You may be baptised and attend every Lord’s Day service and yet be guilty of bomb shelter Christianity. You may have experienced the benefits of church membership and yet turn away from God, thinking that he will be there for you as soon as you call on him. Beware lest you find an echoing void where you expect to find a bomb shelter.
Second, be encouraged that, while he is not there to be used, God is a gracious God who takes no delight in human suffering. And while we need to be careful of thinking of him as a mere bomb shelter in times of dire emergency, he is nevertheless a God who is a strong tower, in whom we can find safety, if we will but run to him.
While he is not impressed with mere shows of empty religiosity, the God if the Bible is a God who is quick to forgive those who return to him in genuine repentance and faith. If you feel the weight of your sin, and long for relief from its burden, you can call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. Repent of your sins and call on him to save you, and he will do so.