In the biblical book of Judges, we get an accounting of the history of ancient Israel before the monarchy was established. During this period, there was no king, the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes (often with disastrous moral consequences), and the nation as a whole descended along a downwardly-spiraling track of increasing despair and depravity.
In many ways, the history of Israel is similar to the personal history of an individual, struggling along life’s path, facing moral ups and downs, straying from the right path, making poor decisions, falling into addiction and reaping the consequences. How many of us can relate to those themes?
And yet in the book of Judges, another theme emerges, besides the theme of moral failure and degeneracy, and that is the theme of God’s rescue. In this book a pattern is established, wherein the people turn to idolatry and abandon God, God responds by allowing them to stray and “selling them” into the oppression of foreign nations, and then the people cry out (eventually) for help, at which time God raises up a deliverer to save them from their oppression and restore them to a right relationship with Himself.
What is incredible as we examine this cycle of apostasy-oppression-repentance-rescue, is how long it takes the people of Israel to cry out to God for help.
Look at Judges 4:1-3:
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud had died. So the Lord sold them to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera who lived in Harosheth of the Nations. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, because Jabin had nine hundred iron chariots, and he harshly oppressed them twenty years.
Twenty years! That is apparently how long it took the Israelites to cry out to the Lord for rescue. In modern terms, 20 years is approximately one generation. And that is how long Jabin and Sisera oppressed the Israelites before they cried out to the Lord. They were so married to their idols, so rebellious in their hearts, that calling out to God was not merely the option of last resort, it did not apparently even occur to them as an option at all until they had endured two full decades of brutality.
Now the story continues, I would encourage you to read what happens next. The Lord does indeed miraculously rescue His people, using, I might add, some very unexpected and even astonishing means to do so. But the stupendous nature of God’s rescue of Israel in Judges 4 only makes their long wait to call on Him all the more incredible. Why did it take them so long?
At this point, we may need to turn that same question around on ourselves. How many times, in the face of some trial or adversity–whether self-inflicted or outside of our control–do we view crying out to the Lord for help our option of last resort? Have we bought into the modern myth that “God helps those who help themselves?” To the extent that we have, we do ourselves a great disservice and we actually alienate ourselves from the God who calls Himself our helper and invites us to bring our burdens and labor to His Son, who will give us rest.
Israel’s sin had consequences and placed them under God’s wrath, but it also put them in a situation where they could call on God and experience His rescue. Our sin places us in very much the same situation.
Sin often leads to oppression and hardship in our lives (indeed whenever they do not lead to oppression and hardship, we should thank God for His incredible mercy!). God sent Jesus into the world to take on Himself the hardship–to the point of death–that our sin had earned us. He rose again and, having conquered our sin and God’s resulting wrath once and for all, He now offers real rest and true help to everyone who hears and believes.
We will not receive His help as long as we are relying on ourselves (or the “idols” in our lives which we trust instead of God–those go-to, functional saviors we turn to for comfort or help, or simply to numb the pain–which inevitably let us down). The Bible never says God helps those who help themselves, but rather that, “you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Those verses fly in the face of our deeply-ingrained sense of self-sufficiency. It takes us so long to ask for help, because it is so hard to believe we can’t rescue ourselves. But believing that, and believing in the One who alone can rescue us, is the key to being rescued. It is just as true for you and me as it was for ancient Israel.
His rescue is a gift from Him alone, given to those who give up working to rescue themselves and trust Jesus; we cannot claim one scrap of glory for bringing it about.
God’s deliverance will not mean you don’t have work to do; Israel did have a battle to fight as part of God’s rescue from Sisera. However, the good news is that God rescues everyone who calls on Jesus, and that rescue is unilateral. He defeats our sin and its consequences for us. Then the work that we do to root out sin in our lives is a result of the transformation He brings.
Are you going through hardship right now? It’s all around us, and indeed it is a pervasive part of life. If you aren’t going through it now, you can be sure that it will only be a matter of time until you are. It took Israel 20 years to ask for Help. How long will it take you?