From the day a person is born, they begin a process of absorbing information from the environment around them. We learn to walk by watching and copying. We learn to talk by listening and copying. We lean to live through observing our environment.
Our environment is the society and the culture we live in. The society provides a framework for living and a set of values on each aspect of that framework. The values also include moral standards and expectation in life. The view on the way things are done comes from observation.
This is all quite natural, but the result is that many values are essentially arbitrary and form a constructed reality. A dramatic change, or a collapse of this construction leaves all of this learning worthless, or a liability.
2. The Society of the Judges
Shortly after the first establishment of the nation of Israel, there was a time known as the period of the judges. The period of the Judges spanned from the death of Joshua to the time of Samuel and the first national king. The summary at the end of the book stated that:
Judges 21:25.: In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. NKJV
This suggests a way of life that was bordering on anarchy. Many would also suggest that this also aptly describes the current spiritual state of the western world. In this case, people also largely do what is right in their own eyes, and shun the idea of an authority having influence on their lives.
For the nation of Israel, the period of the Judges was very unstable. When there was no strong leader, the people looked inwardly for a source of moral standards. This resulted, among other things, in the establishment of idol worship.
One occurance of this is seen in Judges 6.
Judes 6:1.: Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD. So the LORD delivered them into the hand of Midian for seven years, 2. and the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel. Because of the Midianites, the children of Israel made for themselves the dens, the caves, and the strongholds which are in the mountains NKJV
The 40 years that has passed between the death of Sisera in Judges 5, and the time had been sufficient to forget of when the glory of God was evident. Even with our own information age, memories of significant events half a century ago are significantly dulled. By that time, the people were accustomed to their way of life, and the Baal worship was better accepted than that of the true God.
Later in this chapter, and angel of God appeared to a man called Gideon to save his people:
Judges 6:12.: And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him, and said to him, "The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor!" 13. Gideon said to Him, "O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, 'Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?' But now the LORD has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites." NKJV
Gideon had a faith, but could not understand why his people appeared to have been forsaken. This is like a follower of Christ wondering why the world it still so far from God. God gave Gideon a solution in the following verse:
Judegs 6:14.: Then the LORD turned to him and said, "Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?" 15. So he said to Him, "O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house." 16. And the LORD said to him, "Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man." NKJV
This may not have been the solution Gideon was wanting, as this required him to take the risk. He, as most people, would have preferred someone else to do it. Unfortunately everyone is a someone, and there are no “someone elses”.
Nevertheless, Gideon accepted this, but wanted to see a sign that it was really God speaking to him. He didn't want to be led by someone who didn't really have the power to do the work. God then gave him the sign, with a fire consuming an offering he made. Following this, instructions were given about how to start the defeat of the Midianites:
Judges 6:25.: Now it came to pass the same night that the LORD said to him, "Take your father's young bull, the second bull of seven years old, and tear down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the wooden image that is beside it; 26. "and build an altar to the LORD your God on top of this rock in the proper arrangement, and take the second bull and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the image which you shall cut down." NKJV
Some people would have balked at this commandment, because it wasn't the glorious action of leading the defeat of the Midianites. In fact the destruction of the alter was likely to create more enemies than glory. In fact he knew there would be opposition, so he did it by stealth,
Judges 6:27.: So Gideon took ten men from among his servants and did as the LORD had said to him. But because he feared his father's household and the men of the city too much to do it by day, he did it by night. NKJV
His society valued the idols, and destroying them was just not the “cool” thing to do. Gideon, however, had the vision to see a world outside the experience he had grown up to. This was a world where it was worth standing up for the God of Israel. The faith in the different world to come gave him the boldness to challenge the conventional ideas of Baal worship and submission to the foreign kings.
Why did people worship the gods? From a modern perspective, there is no sense in it at all. Very few modern cultures believe that any divine power can come from a wooden idol.
It is a silly thing to waste time worshipping a god made of wood or stone. It has little more purpose than shooting an imaginary animated object in a computer game. It cannot achieve anything productive. Similarly the rituals of idol worship have no productive end. In a modern context, the rituals have little more value than attending a sporting event or rock concert.
In some objective context, these actions are all worthless, yet still thousands, and indeed millions, of people are eager to do them. One might ask what it is that provokes people to do this. One reason is that they appeal to the less logical, or reasoned, aspects of a person's personality. In a general sense, the more important reason is that a love for these things is built up from the customs of the society. Ever since they were born, people saw that this was the way to act. It wasn't an easy thing to cut down the alter to Baal. It was bad enough for Gideon to live in fear of the foreign armies, but in challenging local customs, he was also in danger from his countrymen. This was not just about the threat of physical violence either. There was also the issue of his reputation and popularity amongst his peers. When reading about the significant acts in the Bible, it is easy to forget that the characters involved had their own lives to run in much the same way that we do. As humans, they intrinsically had the same everyday needs from their society that we do.
Consider the reaction of the people of the city:
Judges 6: 28.: And when the men of the city arose early in the morning, there was the altar of Baal, torn down; and the wooden image that was beside it was cut down, and the second bull was being offered on the altar which had been built. 29. So they said to one another, "Who has done this thing?" And when they had inquired and asked, they said, "Gideon the son of Joash has done this thing." 30. Then the men of the city said to Joash, "Bring out your son, that he may die, because he has torn down the altar of Baal, and because he has cut down the wooden image that was beside it." NKJV
It's hard to have friends and a good time in a society where this type of thing is happening. Gideon had to give up all intentions of this before he committed himself to following the directive of God.
In destroying the idols, Gideon had turned his focus away from his own society. His life plans weren't about things like enjoying a quiet weekend away from work. Instead his focus was on a different world. Even though the Israelites were suffering at the hands of Midian, they still had a lifestyle and their own world of existence. They had social events to attend, idols to worship and friends to associate with. In destroying the idols, Gideon's friend count is likely to have dropped significantly.
This, however, was not the primary concern of Gideon. He didn't see the world the same way as many of his fellow Israelites. Instead he had faith in a meaning beyond the present. It was for this reason that he was given a mention in Hebrews:
Hebrews 11:32.: And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33. who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, NKJV
The important point is that he didn't let his opinions and dreams to be constrained by the then present society. That would have left him feeling helpless about the salvation of Israel, and consoling himself in the pleasures and comfort of the idols. This was similar to the attitude of Moses as shown in Hebrews 11:
Heb 11:24.: By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; 25. Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; NKJV
3. Ahaz and the Assyrians
There are numerous contrasts to the behaviour of Gideon, both in and outside the Bible. One example is King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz lived in the eighth centruy B.C., and was the father of King Hezekiah.
Hostilities with Syria
One incident in his life is portrayed in Isaiah 7.
Isaiah 7:1.: Now it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to make war against it, but could not prevail against it. 2. And it was told to the house of David, saying, "Syria's forces are deployed in Ephraim." So his heart and the heart of his people were moved as the trees of the woods are moved with the wind. NKJV
The incident involved hostilities from Rezin king of Syria. The northern tribes of Israel were also involved in this, and so it formed one of the many confrontations between the northern and southern kingdoms in that era of the divided nation. God then spoke to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah about the confrontation:
Isaiah 7:3.: Then the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-Jashub your son, at the end of the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller's Field, 4. "and say to him: 'Take heed, and be quiet; do not fear or be fainthearted for these two stubs of smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria, and the son of Remaliah. 5. 'Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah have plotted evil against you, saying, 6. "Let us go up against Judah and trouble it, and let us make a gap in its wall for ourselves, and set a king over them, the son of Tabel" -- 7. 'thus says the Lord GOD: "It shall not stand, Nor shall it come to pass. NKJV
There were two aspects to this. Firstly Isaiah confirmed that there was indeed a threat to the national security, but he also said that this threat be come to nothing that the he should not be concerned about it.
Isaiah 7:10.: Moreover the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11. "Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above." 12. But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!" NKJV
In stark contrast to Gideon, who repeatedly called for a sign from God, Ahaz was offered one, but chose not to take it. We can only speculate on the true reasons for ignoring the offer for a sign.
There is a possiblity that he didn't want to become too involved in entertaining in his mind the type of ideas of Isaiah. They were difficult ideas, because they relied on a faith that he didn't see in the world about him. Instead he used an extract of the commandment of God as an excuse keep himself a distance from it. This was an example of following a law that was convenient, but completely ignoring the remainder. A commandment about tempting given in Deut 6:
Deuteronomy 6:16.: " You shall not tempt the LORD your God as you tempted Him in Massah. 17. "You shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, His testimonies, and His statutes which He has commanded you. NKJV
In the same section, idols are mentioned:
Deut 6:14.: "You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you NKJV
Ahaz was clearly very creative or naive in how he interpreted that part of the command of God. However, we must accept that this is a symptom of the typical behaviour of human nature. It is very easy to trivialise something that is prolific in one's own society. After all, “if everyone else is doing it, it must be allright.”
Even though Ahaz rejected the sign, Isaiah told him of one anyhow:
Isaiah 7:13.: Then he said, "Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? 14. "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. NKJV
This is a sign that we can take more from that Ahaz ever did. The way in which this points forward to Jesus is a sign to many generations. Some people don't want to know about him, while others are willing to accept the sign and its consequences. Indeed, it does have consequences.
Trust in Assyria
The record in II Kings reveals more about how Ahaz actually responded to the threat from Syria. Isaiah had urged him not to be concerned about Syria's power, but it appears that Ahaz did not accept this comfort. In II Kings 16 the details are recorded:
2 Kings 16:2.: Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his father David had done. NKJV
This describes the wickedness of Ahaz in terms of the standards of God. The actual threat is recorded in verse 5:
2 Kings 16:5.: Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to Jerusalem to make war; and they besieged Ahaz but could not overcome him. 6. At that time Rezin king of Syria captured Elath for Syria, and drove the men of Judah from Elath. Then the Edomites went to Elath, and dwell there to this day. NKJV
At this point Isaiah would be saying to Ahaz that he did not need to be concerned. God had revealed that this problem could be overcome, but with the implicit assumption that faith was necessary in the deliverance and the solution of God. History, however, shows that Ahaz sought a solution elsewhere.
2 Kings 16:7.: So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, saying, "I am your servant and your son. Come up and save me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who rise up against me." NKJV
This would have been standard procedure for minor monarchs at the time. If there is a danger from another army, the solution is to form or buy a better army to force the other party to back down. Purchase is indeed what Ahaz did:
2 Kings 16:8.: And Ahaz took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasuries of the king's house, and sent it as a present to the king of Assyria. 9. So the king of Assyria heeded him; for the king of Assyria went up against Damascus and took it, carried its people captive to Kir, and killed Rezin. NKJV
Instead of finding a solution in the power of God, he looked to solution and ways that he was familiar with in his society. This is precisely what Gideon did not do. Ahaz looked to obtain the biggest army he could buy, while Gideon was happy to let God lead him to use a very small army. Gideon ultimately had a resounding victory, but Ahaz only bought a tempory respite. Only a few decades later the Assyrians were to turn on them, oppressing them, and destroying the northern kingdom of Israel.
However, Ahaz went further than just buying an alliance. His association with the Assyrians had a greater influence on him. The close ties he had opened up a weakness. This is seen in the remainder of that chapter.
2 Kings 16:10.: Now King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, and saw an altar that was at Damascus; and King Ahaz sent to Urijah the priest the design of the altar and its pattern, according to all its workmanship. 11. Then Urijah the priest built an altar according to all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus. So Urijah the priest made it before King Ahaz came back from Damascus. NKJV
Ultimately this meant that Ahaz's associations had further entrenched him in the Assyrian way of life. It is very hard to have one form of association with a society without taking others with it. The alliance required a level of interaction, such as a show of respect for the other party. This, in turn, opened up additional levels of interaction, and ultimately a big influence is made, both in the conscious and in the subsconscience.
Trust in Egypt
At the time of Ahaz, the Assyrian Empire was strong and expanding. Ahaz used this strength for his security. An alternative was to look the other way for support, down to Egypt. They were also a power, and would offer security. The Northen kingdom of Israel did exactly this:
II Kings 16:1.: In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah, Hoshea the son of Elah became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned nine years. 2. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, but not as the kings of Israel who were before him. 3. Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against him; and Hoshea became his vassal, and paid him tribute money. 4. And the king of Assyria uncovered a conspiracy by Hoshea; for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and brought no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up, and bound him in prison. NKJV
This incident then lead to the captivity of the 10 tribes and break-up of the Israelites. Judah and Jerusalem was also under threat from the Assyrians shortly afterwood. In the time of Hezekiah, Ahaz's son, Assyria attacked the Southern kingdom as well. At this time, Hezekiah had the option of turning to Egypt as Hoshea had done.
At that time, the prophet Isaiah spoke of this trust in Egypt.
Isaiah 30:1.: "Woe to the rebellious children," says the LORD, "Who take counsel, but not of Me, And who devise plans, but not of My Spirit, That they may add sin to sin; NKJV
This is a very general statement, and could be applied to many activities and ideas. It is more specific in this context, however.
Isaiah 30:2.: Who walk to go down to Egypt, And have not asked My advice, To strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, And to trust in the shadow of Egypt! 3. Therefore the strength of Pharaoh Shall be your shame, And trust in the shadow of Egypt Shall be your humiliation. NKJV
This was a very timely waring to Hezekiah about thinking of trusting in Egypt for strength. His father had sought security from an army, but this could not be relied on. This idea is continued in the following chapter:
Isaiah 31:1.: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, And rely on horses, Who trust in chariots because they are many, And in horsemen because they are very strong, But who do not look to the Holy One of Israel, Nor seek the LORD! NKJV
He says “Woe to those who rely on horses, Who trust in chariots because they are many, And in horsemen because they are very strong”. Really, it is quite easy to understand people doing this. If you are fighting a war, you generally want the best weapons. Our whole society is built on concepts like this. If you seek to win a war, you buy the best weapons. If you seek fulfilment in life, you buy the best toys and best friends.
This is a product of our society, where the range of considered options is limited. The alternative of God's way is elaborated in the following verses:
Isaiah 31:2.: Yet He also is wise and will bring disaster, And will not call back His words, But will arise against the house of evildoers, And against the help of those who work iniquity. 3. Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; And their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out His hand, Both he who helps will fall, And he who is helped will fall down; They all will perish together. NKJV
This speaks of a power that is not considered in the current society. It is different to what is normally seen, and so people doubt that it is a trustworthy solution. For similar reasons, the Pharisees did not have trust in the salvation offered through Jesus. They said,
John 9:29.: "We know that God spoke to Moses; as for this fellow, we do not know where He is from." NKJV
Even with all the evidence before their eyes, the doubt still remained. It is very hard to put faith in the ideas and solutions that aren't being constantly thrown into our faces. It is easier to find a “practical” solution, which is born out of experiences seen in the current society.
4. Society as A Veneer
The thing that is hard to see is that our entire society is just a veneer, or simply a highly artificial facade. For example, you can take two little plastic sheets, and one is worth 100, and the other is worth less than a cent. That's an artificial construction of our society. In the same way, trust in horses, chariots and stealth bombers is an artificial construction. Fancy clothing, jewlery, cars and even electricity are all things whose value comes from the society. Every day that we live in such a society, we are being taught the society's concept of what value these items have.
However, the next few chapters of Isaiah show that this veneer is to be broken up and discarded, as a new society is built.
Isaiah 34:1.: Come near, you nations, to hear; And heed, you people! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, The world and all things that come forth from it. 2. For the indignation of the LORD is against all nations, And His fury against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to the slaughter. NKJV
This is a force that will undermine the structure of even the most prosperous empire. The veneer that is present human society will be broken up, and the priorities that once were, are no longer. The destruction spoken of in chapter 34 is not a permanent thing, but merely a time of transition, where an artificial order is broken up. Isaiah 26 describes:
Isaiah 26:20.: Come, my people, enter your chambers, And shut your doors behind you; Hide yourself, as it were, for a little moment, Until the indignation is past. 21. For behold, the LORD comes out of His place To punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; ... NKJV
The new world is described in the next chapter of Isaiah,
Isaiah 35:1.: The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; 2. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, Even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, The excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, The excellency of our God. NKJV
It is speaking of a time when the problems in the world are overcome, and the wrongs made right.
Isaiah 35:3.: Strengthen the weak hands, And make firm the feeble knees. 4. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, "Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, With the recompense of God; He will come and save you." 5. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. 6. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert. NKJV
In the context of this new world society, the values inherent in human societies for the past few thousand years will be obsolete. Indeed, they are already obsolete, as the believer is called to come out of this world. The book of James shows the fate of the current riches of society.
James 5:1.: Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! NKJV
In most places in the world today, people want to be rich. It is one of primary things to be desired. However, James says that this will not last.
James 5:2.: Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. 4. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. NKJV
This passage is a concern to us, because 21st century western life is materially very rich. So why were the rich men to weep and howl? The problem to them shown here is not so much the loss of the treasure. If the rich man did not significantly value the riches and garments, the loss would not be a cause to weep and howl. In the end they would still be no worse off than the poor person. Instead, it is the effect of the wealth on the person that is important.
Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 6:
Matthew 6:19.: " Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20. "but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21. "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. NKJV
This is not just about quantities of gold bullion and clothing. The value of gold and money is simply one aspect of this artificial veneer that we call our civilisation. There are many other aspects of wealth, such as power and social standing.
Gideon had been able to take ten men from his servents, and they willingly obeyed to do an unpopular act. This showed that Gideon was a wealthy person. However, he did not value his social standing among the worshippers of Baal. If he had, he would not have been able to carry out the work of God. He knew that that was not a treasure to be valued.
Just as Gideon could see that the world of oppression by Midian and Baal could end, so the modern believer is given a promise of a new society.
1 Cor 2:9.: But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." NKJV