Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Judges 21

Verses 1-25

One Tribe Lacking

Judges 21:3

THE spirit of this inquiry is the spirit of the whole Bible. It Isaiah, indeed, not so much an inquiry as a wail, a burst of sorrow, a very agony of kinship and disunion. The three-fold repetition of "Israel" indicates supreme distress. Israel was meant to be a unity—a constitution not only complete but inviolable—foursquare, without break or flaw, vital at every point—a noble integrity! And now Benjamin is threatened with extinction: Benjamin is not in the house of God. From the beginning, Benjamin was but a little tribe, the least of all in Israel, numbering at first from thirty to forty thousand fighting men. Over an extremely difficult and delicate question Benjamin came into conflict with the rest of Israel, and after an almost superhuman resistance was overborne, all but extirpated indeed, only some six hundred men being left, and they hiding themselves in the rock Rimmon—the impregnable Rock of the Pomegranate—some four months, thinking of the eighteen thousand men of valour who had been "trodden down with ease over against Gibeah toward the sunrising." But there was a time of heart-breaking in Israel. In the battlefield men thought only of victory, but they went up unto what is called in the text "the house of God." That is the right point of observation. Until you have looked at your fellow creatures from the house of God, from the altar, from the cross, you have never looked at them. Israel was now in the house of God, and began to reckon, to say, Who is here? Who is not here? Then they sighed, and shed tears, as only strong men can shed them, and in their tears they said, "O Lord God of Israel, why is this come to pass in Israel, that there should be to day one tribe lacking in Israel?" Thus men come to their better selves; heat dies away, vengeance halts in its desperate pursuit, all deepest and truest instincts come to the support of reason, natural affection stands by the side of justice, and great questions are quieted by great answers.

Does not the text exhibit the human aspect of the solicitude of God"s own heart? In this respect, as well as in other ways, is not man made a little lower than God? In all such emotion there are suggestions infinite in scope and tenderness—suggestions of unity, family completeness, absolute unselfishness, redemption, forgiveness, reconstruction, everlasting joy! There is of course a sentiment which is without value, but this must not blind us to the fact that there is also an emotion without which we cannot sound the depths of God"s own love. When we feel most truly, we often see most clearly. "Where art thou?" was the inquiry of God when Adam did not come towards him in the fearless joy of innocence. "Where is thy brother?" was the divine inquiry when Cain was found in criminal loneliness. Rather than Israel should be lost Moses would be blotted out of God"s book. Christ came to seek and to save the lost And Paul—that marvellous compound of Moses and Christ—honouring the majesty of the law, yet feeling its weakness in the presence of sin—did he not tremble under the same emotion? The answer will be found in the most doctrinal and logical, yet the most profoundly emotional of all his Epistles. In the Epistle to the Romans not only is one tribe threatened with extinction, but all Israel seems to be lost. The writer cannot rest, therefore. He has "great heaviness and continual sorrow in his heart." It is not enough for him that the forces of the Gentiles are moving towards the Cross, that from Midian, and Ephah, and Sheba men are arising to show forth the praises of the Lord; nor is it enough that the flocks of Kedar and the rams of Nebaioth shall be acceptable sacrifices: all this is good, beautiful, and an exceeding delight, but—but Israel Isaiah, not in the number of those who rejoice, Israel is hard of heart, and remembering this Paul says, "I could wish that myself were anathema from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." "My heart"s desire and prayer to God for Israel Isaiah, that they might be saved." It was a sublime emotion. But who is the speaker? Take his own account of himself—"Of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin"—the very tribe which in the text is lacking! Thus history rolls round in amplified and ennobled repetition. In the Book of Judges all Israel mourned that Benjamin was lacking, and in the Epistle to the Romans, Benjamin, in the person of its most illustrious descendant, laments that all Israel is away—far off in the wilderness of unbelief—he an alien who ought to have been a prince in the house of God.

Nor does the evidence of the presence of this emotion in the Bible end here. In the Apocalypse there is One—"faithful and true Witness, the beginning of the creation of God," and he says, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in;" the same who said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!" the same who went after the lost sheep of the house of Israel; the same who said, "Preach the Gospel to every creature," for good news must evermore do good.

There Isaiah, then, what may be called a distinct unity of emotion, call it pity, solicitude, compassion, or by any equal term, throughout the whole Bible. The Bible varies a good deal in historical and even in moral colour, but it never varies in pity, and love, and mercy. From the first, God loved Prayer of Manasseh, even with atoning and redeeming love. Marvellous, truly and instructively, is the development of Biblical history. It changes page by page—now barbarous, now gentle, here an altar, there a commandment, yonder a ritual, and afar off an experience full of confusion, and riot, and tragedy: but in all the infinite tumult God looks after the wanderer with longing love, pursues him, pleads with him, says "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?" importunes him: "Cries,—How shall I give thee up? Lets the lifted thunder drop." Even divine righteousness varies its aspects without varying its nature; in some sense it measures its demands by human weakness: now it is an order for a place or a time; then it is a series of initial and suggestive commandments; then it is an accommodation to hardness of heart,—never losing a ray of its eternal glory, it yet creates an atmosphere suited to the vision of the beholder;—but love, pity, mercy, care for the absent, wonder about the one lacking tribe,—this begins the book, ends the book stirs the book like the throb of an infinite heart.

The love of God, the mercy, the pity, the compassion of God is not a revelation of the New Testament only, it is the revelation of the whole Bible. In Eden there was a Promised Seed; in the wilderness there was a mercy-seat; in Genesis there is a covenant; in Malachi there is a book of remembrance; in Exodus the Lord keeps mercy for thousands, and forgives iniquity, and transgression, and sin; in Numbers "the Lord is longsuffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression;" in Judges "the Lord was grieved for the misery of Israel;" in Samuel he recalled the avenging angel; in Chronicles (a book of annals) he says, if his people will seek his face and turn from their wicked ways, he will hear them from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land; the Psalm are songs of forgiveness; Isaiah,, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are books glowing with the love of God; and Daniel says, "To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against him;" in Hosea, God heals the backsliding of his people, and loves them freely; even Joel—that burning furnace—says that God is gracious and merciful; Jonah, in solemn anger, says he knew that God was "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness;" and all the minor prophets praise the tenderness of God. So we find that this pity, compassion, mercy—by whatever name we call the emotion—is present from the beginning to the end of the Old Testament. Paul was the most Old Testament writer in all the New Testament. When he speaks of God being rich in mercy, good, forbearing, longsuffering, Paul is in very deed a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the tribe of Benjamin. When the Jews at Jerusalem heard that Paul spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue they kept the more silence. We ought to do the same; for we have understood that Paul was the Apostle of the Gentiles, that his place was far off among the heathen, that special grace was given unto him that he should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and at the very time he was preaching in Syria and Cilicia he was unknown by face unto the Churches of Judea which were in Christ. Yet this Prayer of Manasseh, consecrated to preach in Gentile tongues, spake in the Hebrew tongue. Why? He missed his own people. He thought that the mother-tongue might fetch some of them. His heart was ill at ease. But was not the Hebrew tongue doubly dear to Paul? Surely. For when Hebrews, as Saul, was fallen to the earth as he went to Damascus, he heard a voice speaking to him "in the Hebrew tongue, saying,... I am Jesus." So it was the mother-tongue of his Christian life. It suited the great gospel better than any other language: what other could speak with such unction of "blood"? Any other tongue would make it vulgar—a measurable thing: but in the Hebrew it was lifted up into symbolism and grandeur. "Sacrifice," "redemption," "propitiation," "pardon,"—why, how could he speak in any other than the Hebrew tongue? Thus the Apostle of the Gentiles is also the Apostle of the Jews: the foreign missionary is the home missionary, and the home missionary is the foreign missionary, for it was the whole world that God thought of when he freely delivered up his Son for us all. Paul knew nothing of an Israel reduced to eleven tribes; speaking to Agrippa, he said, with a wonderfully suppressed pathos, "Our twelve tribes"; Paul knew nothing of a broken household, he knew only of the whole family in heaven and on earth: Paul knew nothing of an exclusive gospel; when he witnessed he witnessed "both to small and great." And James—a mind without poetry, a church without a spire—wrote his letter to the full number of the tribes, "The twelve tribes," said he—still twelve, though "scattered abroad."

Is it possible for a tribe to be "lacking" for ever? To become extinct? To lose its election and be damned? Where, for example, is the tribe of Dan? It disappears from the record in1Chronicles, and it is not counted in the Apocalypse. Were its few faithful members amalgamated with some other tribe, say this very tribe of Benjamin? Yet even in the Apocalypse, the number of the tribes is twelve. God"s promise shall stand sure and steadfast, and his supper chamber shall be filled with guests! We may be unfaithful, and may lose our place, but the Blessed One who died for us shall see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied!

From another point of view we shall see that this yearning over the lacking tribe was no mere sentiment. This high feeling had also a disciplinary aspect, and was, therefore, a whole feeling—a complete and ardent loyalty. When Deborah sang her triumphal song she disclosed the second and sterner aspect of this emotion. She knew who was lacking from the war against Jabin King of Hazor, and did not scruple to mention by name the guilty absentees. Why should there have been, said that mother heart, one tribe lacking on that day of war? Reuben remained among the sheepfolds, and listened to the bleatings of the flocks, when he ought to have answered the call of the battle horn and repulsed the chariots of Sisera; and Deborah named him: "For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart; for the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." Why was he lacking that day? He sent promises, but remained at home. He was busy amongst the flocks when he ought to have been suffering with the army! Oh, these prior engagements! these other occupations! these domestic excuses! They went for nothing in the tempest of Deborah"s enthusiasm, and they ought to stand for nothing in our consuming zeal for the honour of our Lord and the dominion of his cross. Nor was Reuben the only absentee. Gilead abode beyond Jordan, Dan was concealed in ships, and Asher—are we not ashamed to say it?—peeped in cowardly curiosity from behind the creeks, and wondered how the war was going on. Yet the battle was won. No credit to the absentees. Where men failed women succeeded: whilst "Zebulun and Naphtali jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field," Deborah and Jael made their names great in Israel. You may keep away from the war, but the battle will end in victory.

There is another variety of the principle of the text which cannot be wisely overlooked. There is a lacking or absence which affects great indignation because it has not been observed. Men stand back for a space that they may see whether they will be missed. Others come in after the victory and demand to know why they were not allowed to share in the fight! Let history be our proof. We stand or fall by facts in an argument like this. When Gideon overthrew the Midianites, and held in one hand the head of Prince Oreb, and in the other the head of Prince Zeeb, the Ephraimites chided him sharply because they had not been sent fur. This was a trick of Ephraim—a trick he dearly paid for when he tried it upon Jephthah. "Wherefore," said Ephraim to Jephthah, "passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee?" Jephthah told them why. He reminded them that once he did send for them and they did not come, and now that they began to chide him the Spirit of the Lord and of true judgment burned in him, and that day he choked the passages of the Jordan with forty-two thousand Ephraimites. Ephraim was a coward. Ephraim is a branded name. For ever will it be said of him, "Ephraim being armed and carrying bows turned back in the day of battle." Ephraim was famous for archery. Ephraim might have done wonders with bow and arrow, but he turned back, and then blamed others because he was not sent for! Is it so with any who may smile at Ephraim"s cowardice? Are there not those who would have done wonderful things if they had known of the opportunity? They knew not when Christ was an hungered, or athirst, or naked, or sick, or in prison, or they would have given unto him: they say Song of Solomon, but—"These shall go away into everlasting punishment."

So the text taken in all its aspects is no mere sentiment. In presence of some gaps in the line of Israel the tears of the text become sparks of fire, because of the treachery of some and the cowardice of others. We have forgotten that Christianity is a battle as well as a gospel. Is the whole fighting strength of the Church under discipline? Are any skulking at home? Are any enjoying the delights of civilisation who ought to be in the wilderness of heathenism; nay, come closer still; are any sitting in luxury and idleness who ought to be in some department of Christian service—say in the Sunday-school, in the diaconate, in districts inhabited by poverty and ignorance? Why should there be this day one tribe lacking in Christian Israel? There is a tremendous foe. We are all needed. There is room for all—for wealth, for genius, for learning, for love, for age, for youth. Come! Surrender yourselves to Christ! Be soldiers of the Cross!

But here a word of consolation may be fitly given. Some are no longer in the hot battle, yet they must not be thought of as absent or lacking from the household of God. Even the mighty David "waxed faint." He was but seventy when he died. Yet when we say "but seventy" do we not speak carelessly? What a seventy! what years they were! When he tottered under his weakness, in one of the closing battles, he nearly fell. A Philistine, Ishbibenob by name, had a new sword, and he was heavy upon the king, for the king was no longer what he used to be. The Philistine pressed hard upon him—upon him who slew the lion and the bear and the giant of Gath—upon him who made Jerusalem rich with the golden shields of Hadadezer. But he was getting old; he was but poor at last in the stroke of the sword; then came his loyal captains and said, so sweetly, with heart-breaking pathos, "Thou shalt go no more out with us to battle, that thou quench not the light of Israel." David had fought enough; the shades of eventide were gathering around him; he had been a great warrior, but it was time he retired from the field. May not this also be the experience of many? After a long fight they stand aside, but, blessed be God, they are not "lacking." They have retired from the pastorate, from the public office, from the battlefield generally, but we do not mourn over them as Deborah mourned over Reuben and Gilead and Dan and Asher. They are not willingly absent. The old feeling again stirs in them. They sometimes think they could go back and fight just as well and as successfully as ever, and could preach just as richly and effectively and reverently as they ever did. They are not in the battlefield, but they are not lacking from the hosts of God; the light of their example abides, and their remembered service is a perpetual and gracious inspiration.

The text is full of tender feeling, showing itself in anxiety about the absent, though the absent one was both insignificant and ill-behaved. This anxiety Isaiah, we know, the very spirit of the whole Bible. It is the Spirit of Christ. It is the explanation of the cross. Remembering all this, we venture to say that this feeling—this feeling of profound and anxious emotion—alone can sustain constantly and worthily all Christian and missionary service. When we lose this sacred feeling we lose our inspiration. When we cease to care for others, to long for the absent, to yearn over the poor and the out-of-the-way, our Christianity can live no longer. All Christian funds will languish when Christian feeling dies. Let us speak to ourselves plainly upon this matter. Many professing Christians are learned, controversial, orthodox in words, and idolaters of propriety: but where is the feeling which cannot rest until the lacking tribe is brought back? The preacher may do more by his tears than by mere dry reasoning. Only love, like God"s, like Christ"s, can persist in unselfish service—observe, persist, keep on, press forward, forgive injuries, forget neglects, begin again, stand at the door and knock, never give up, keep the door ajar for the prodigal, set a candle in the window for the wanderer,—only love can do these miracles: the mother can watch longer than the doctor: the shepherd will endure better than the hireling: pity will spare where law will destroy. What is it that is troubled on every side yet not distressed, perplexed yet not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed? What is it? It is the faith that works by love! Why continue in the ministry and prove it in much patience, in afflictions, in distress, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in fastings—why? "The love of Christ constraineth us." That is the eternal motive, or the motive which alone can endure to eternity. Macaulay has well reminded us of Lord Bacon"s just observation that mere negation, mere epicurean infidelity, has never disturbed the peace of the world. "It furnishes," says Hebrews, "no motive for action. It has no missionaries, no crusaders, no martyrs." When Christian institutions lose their feeling they become but useless and costly machines.

But, it may be urged, the feeling of the text was a feeling expressive of kinship, a family feeling, an esprit de corps. What argument can be built upon a domestic or tribal instinct? The question is out of place. Happily the answer is ready. The Christian conception of human nature is that it is one. "God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth." The question of Malachi, "Have we not all one Father? hath not God created us?" we answer in the words of Christ—"Our Father which art in heaven." There are supreme moments in human experience; they cannot be long-continued, but what a memory they leave behind!—moments when we realise the unity of the human race, saying, "There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him." Man is one: for God is one. A traveller in his book on tropical South Africa tells us of a tribe called the Damaras, who have no knowledge of arithmetic, enumeration, or Numbers, as we understand them. He gives many amusing instances illustrative of this lack of what may be called numerical knowledge. But amidst all he says, "how does the herdsman know when an ox is missing, when he looks upon the herd under the shadows of evening? He knows not because the number is less, but because of a face which he misses." Oh, that shepherdly look! The man says, "There is one lacking." Then the face is painted before the eye of his imagination. We are not numbers in an hostelry; we are not figures in an arithmetical series; we are faces, lives, souls, spirits, sons of God. What wonder if sometimes even in heaven the question should be asked, Why is there one face missing? Why is David"s place empty?

We now reach the final and most pathetic point, namely, that there may be some who are saying in their hearts, not being able to say it aloud because of grief, Why is my child lacking from the Church? Why is my son not by my side at holy Sacrament? Why has my firstborn left his old father"s faith and gone away? Oh, why? Be encouraged. He may return. He may come back today or to-morrow. Never give up your prayer. It is very hard to pray again after praying for years, and to mention a name that never seems to get into heaven; and the poor old heart gives way and says, "I cannot pray any longer about this: I am killed by the prodigal"s very name: I will cease." Never! Hold on! After the next prayer there may be a sign in heaven—very small, but still a sign and a beginning. Sorrow may bring back the wanderer. God"s veiled angel called Affliction may some night knock at the door and say, "I have brought back that which was lost." Great commercial distress may do it; an utter annihilation of the young man"s foolish ambitions may do it. God hath many ministers. His chariots are twenty thousand, and who shall say in which he will go forth, in the morning, at midday, or in the evening? Hope on then. One more prayer—the greatest, the best, the fullest of heart—almost an atonement, going nigh to the shedding of sacrificial blood. Do not despair. It may be that even yet you shall have the joy of completeness:—


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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Judges 21". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/judges-21.html. 1885-95.