America is not the country that it was fifty or sixty years ago. Instead of Andy Griffith patrolling Mayberry, we have Hobby Lobby in the Supreme Court. This happened within a generation, from fathers to sons. At the same time there appears to be a steady continuity, if not resurgence of conservative evangelicalism in America. We are witnessing not only a tectonic cultural shift, but also a profound divergence within American society. What is happening?
The book of Judges gives us some very relevant insight, proof that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Prior to Judges, Joshua led the first phase of conquest. He followed God’s command, being strong and courageous. By Joshua’s death, however, the conquest was still incomplete. Judges chapter 1 narrates the continuing conquest. At this point the people were still following God’s command to execute judgment on the Canaanite nations and receiving their inheritance of the land. The accounts are fascinating and gripping: Adoni-bezek, “lord of Bezek”, known for his cruelty in maiming men to prevent them leading militarily, receives justice, humbled before God. The men of Judah are out defeating the foe. We see Caleb challenging a younger generation to go out to battle for God’s glory–and for the blessing of marriage to his daughter Achsah, who is quite the woman. Othniel takes it up and receives a wife who knows the love of her warrior father, and his generosity: when she asks for additional land with a spring of water, her father gives her double of what she asked for.
Yet, as we move along through the text, cracks begin to show. There is conquest in the hill country, but not quite entirely. And then there is failure on the plains. Why was the technology of iron chariots too much for the people? Certainly not because God in his sovereign power was unable to give them victory. The divine narration leaves us to muse that something is off here… and if something is off, it is not God.
At the same time, Caleb once again receives an honorable mention, one in contrast with the failure on the plain. Where iron chariots stop an entire tribe, Caleb and his company gain victory against the sons of Anak, the giants of the land. Meanwhile, the Benjaminites are also noted for their failure. The house of Joseph is also noted for incomplete pursuit of God’s call, the man allowed out of the city goes off to establish a new pagan city in the land.
The picture is of a people increasingly losing their spiritual edge. At first it is just here and there, occasional. There is obedience to God, but it is partial obedience. People have a heart for God, but it is a divided heart. Soon this leads to a steady refrain: “Manasseh did not drive out… Ephraim did not drive out… Zebulun did not drive out… Naphtali did not drive out…”
God speaks to Israel through his messenger, “the angel of the LORD.” The people weep, they offer sacrifices of contrition. But despite the mourning and sorrow, they fail to actually repent by doing what God had called them to. They heard the Word of God, they responded with words, with pious emotions, with feeling–but not with their lives and actions. Real repentance is displayed in change in life.
Joshua’s death is now recounted, and with it perhaps the most profound failure of the people. Their increasing failures in committed pursuit of God’s will in public life were all the greater at home. There was a profound failure of fathers and mothers in raising sons and daughters according to God’s covenant. There was a failure of true love, of nurture, instruction, and training. And so we read in Judges 2:10 that a new generation rose “who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” Undoubtedly they knew about Him. But they were not characterized by living faith, new life, or delight in God and His grace. As a generation they were not characterized by the pursuit of communion with God, love for Him, passion for, and pursuit of dedicated holiness.
The new generation “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals… and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers… they went after other gods… and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and Ashtaroth.” (2:11-13) The parallels with the North American experience are striking. Canada in the 1950’s was a nation with a widespread evangelical Protestant influence. Evangelical complacency tolerated theological liberalism. Today it is as decidedly post-Christian and secular as any part of Europe, and like Europe retains only a tiny minority of evangelicals. Church-going is a rarity; gospel-preaching churches are even more of a rarity. The United States also had a widespread evangelical Protestant influence but is currently seeing sweeping changes, following the path of Europe and Canada.
In Europe, Canada, and America there has always been a non-Christian population. That is not the issue. Rather, the issue here, as in previous generations elsewhere, is that American evangelicals were all too comfortable with an Andy Griffith or a Beverly Hillbillies culture and life. As in the generation of Joshua’s old age, Christian love became redefined, complacent, nondescript: unlike the love of God, so marvelous, holy and just in Christ. Dedicated holiness raised eyebrows, was seen as being a bit over the top. And with the exception of a line of Calebs producing a next generation of Achsahs and Othniels, the rest of the Protestant evangelical world was on the road to raising a generation who could talk about God, spirituality, and even some edgy theology, but “did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” The next generation shed this syncretism for a more open embrace of paganism.
God was angry with Israel and consequences came. Read Judges for the rest of the story. The glorious mystery was that in grace and mercy he raised up judges: savior-types, deliverers. Othniel, a sinner like anyone, was a testimony to God’s grace: the LORD raised him up in His unilateral, undeserved love (Judges 3:7-11). Othniel and Achash were also a testimony to the blessedness of faithful parenting. Their parents trusted in and relied on God’s grace, living by the gospel, with their children. Ultimately Othniel both pictures the gospel and points us to Jesus Christ: the One who is the great Deliverer for people who need deliverance.
Will we listen to what God says to us by the book of Judges? Will we genuinely repent, by grace in Christ growing in loving and delighting to pursue the calling He gives? The alternative is stark: abandon God’s goodness and decline into judgment.