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Consider the Water

September 21, 2009, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Judges 20:18-48) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Judges, 士师记

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on Judges 20:18-48

An American writer once told this story, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

The point of this story is that the most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Our perspectives are so natural to us that we often fail to notice them. Like water to a fish, you seldom think about it even though you may be immersed in it. We assume our perspectives are true, and we take that for granted. As we go through this sermon series on Judges, we have intentionally looked into some of these realities and reflected on them. These realities include basic human instincts like fear and greed, and also the nature of our relationship with God. For these moments of introspection, I am immensely thankful. Sometimes, we just blindly go about our lives, day in day out. Even coming to church is a routine affair. Taken in this sense, we are really no different from the people living in those times of Judges. We are just doing what we think is right. Like them, it is hard for us to realize the water we are swimming in. But this awareness of the water is the most fundamental reflection that we must do on a regular basis, and it is my topic for today.

In today’s passage, we read about a civil war in Israel. The tribe of Benjamin is fighting against the other 11 tribes. The highlights of the story are two moments of clarity, one for each side of the battle. Each moment describes how they see the water they are swimming in, and realized what is truly going on. I wish to discuss these two moments, and think about their implications for us when we consider our own water.

For the Israelites, their moment of clarity happened when they asked God for the third time, the question: “Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?” Why do I say that this is a moment of clarity? Let me explain. As Pastor Wilson highlighted last week, the Israelites came out as one man, rose as one man and united as one man. They were a single force of personal justice determined to destroy evil. “What about this awful crime that was committed among you? Now surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel.” To them, it was a non-debatable matter as the testimony of the Levite showed them the evil that was committed. No hesitation was needed. It was not a question of why, only a matter of how.

This was clear in their first question to God. “Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?” The need for a battle was never in doubt. They just wanted God to rubber-stamp their decision by deciding who went first. God played along in deciding that Judah should go first. The reason was most likely because the dead concubine was from Judah, and so Judah had the best reason to start the fight. Anyway, it didn’t really matter. It was 400,000 against 26,000. The victory was confirmed no matter who went first. And things certainly seemed that way until they shockingly lost in the first battle. 22,000 Israelites were killed with no casualties reported for the Benjamites.

Shaken by their unexpected defeat, the Israelites seemed to have grasped the reality of what they were doing. Weeping, they asked God “shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?” This attitude was a marked improvement because they now acknowledged the Benjamites as their brothers. But we should not mistake their question to God as genuinely asking for a yes or no. We know that they had made up their minds before asking God as they had already taken up their battle positions. God continued to play along and this led to their second defeat with 18,000 casualties.

This is why we see the two words “or not” in their third question “Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?” as truly significant. These words mean that that they are equally willing to stop this fight if it is not the will of God. It is no coincidence that before approaching God again, they offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings (also known as peace offerings) instead of taking up their battle positions. After two heavy defeats, they had come to understand that all their previous assumptions of the righteousness of their cause were misplaced. There are 3 reasons for the offerings. One, they have finally come to realize that their covenant relationship with God was in doubt. Why else would God send them into defeat the previous 2 times? Secondly, this broken relationship has to do with God’s anger at their decision to attack their own brother. This was why they needed offerings to make peace with God for their actions, and to absolve their sins of breaking peace with the Benjamites, their brothers. Thirdly, they have finally realized that the wickedness of the Gibeah was not just a Benjamite issue, but an issue with the whole of Israel. These offerings were crucial in acknowledging their own guilt as part of the community that let such evil happen.

This is the real moment of clarity. In their rage against the Benjamites as an agent of justice, they perceived their own innocence as an authority in judging their own brother. Never once did they question their own role in the entire tragedy or their prudence in attacking their own brother in this manner. They were doing as they saw fit. After two defeats, they finally recognized the water they were swimming in. They finally realized that they were attacking one of their own brothers, with whom they shared equal responsibility as a community for the death of the concubine. The offerings and the serious doubt of whether to continue the mission was a fitting response to their realization of what they were doing. The reality had been totally lost on them until that point.

Today, I wish that we also consider the water more often. It is no coincidence that Christians are often perceived as self-righteous. The reason is that our natural response to something we see as wrong is a quick judgment and a strong action to put things right. This is especially harsh if we perceive that we have strength in numbers or in moral superiority. And yet we often wonder why we fail to get people to see their folly and repent accordingly. Haven’t we received our answer from God to “go up against them?” Why did we fail? Now, I do not disagree that we are often correct in spotting a sin. But in charging in to cast out the evil, have you considered the water? The reality is that you might be destroying your brother when you are aiming for the sin. In doing that, I ask 3 questions related to the offerings of the Israelites. What is your relationship with God? Is it broken when you are vengeful against your own brother? And how much you do share in your brother’s sin? Perhaps you need to do your own offerings before charging against your brother.

Matthew 7: 1"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

In Jesus’ teaching, it is not saying that we cannot judge. But we must do that having first considered the water. Search yourself first and check your presuppositions. In the end you may still have to confront your brother in sin, just as God sent the Israelites into victory the third time. But this time, you have taken the plank out of your eye, and see clearly what you are doing. You are still doing the same action to remove the speck, but I think being mindful of the entire picture will make the results different. In the end, the Israelites almost destroyed the entire tribe of Benjamin. But in the way they later mourned their loss and tried to make amends so that the tribe survives, I believe this earlier moment of clarity had a lot to do with it. In considering the water, I believe our results in reconciling a sinful brother will also be similar.

The other moment of clarity in today’s passage comes from the Benjamites. This moment of clarity is described twice in the story because the narrator was playing up the tragic point of the story. In verse 34 “The fighting was so heavy that the Benjamites did not realize how near disaster was.” 36 “Then the Benjamites saw that they were beaten” And then again in verse 41 “Then the men of Israel turned on them, and the men of Benjamin were terrified, because they realize that disaster had come upon them.” The narrator skillfully captured this transitive moment of ignorance to horrid realization of the Benjamites twice. The moment of clarity for the Benjamites is especially impactful to us because we the readers have already been told by the narrator the inevitability of defeat of the Benjamites.

The pain has always been that we know about their inevitable death. When God promised victory to the Israelites “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands”, we know. When the narrator describes how the Israelites set up the ambush, and how the initial casualties successfully lured out the Benjamites, we know. When the Benjamites were oblivious to the danger, and saying “we are defeating them as before”, we know. And so when the moment comes, and the Benjamites finally came to the sickening realization that they were going to die, it hits us hard because we share in their moment of horror. That was the moment the Benjamites saw the water they were swimming in. They saw at that moment the reality that we know all along: that they were all going to die.

Let us imagine what it is like to be a Benjamite then, especially the 700 who were left-handed and could sling a stone perfectly. You can kill any enemy in a distance. And even if one manages to get close to you, they are killed instantly because they did not expect the strike from the left hand. Whether near or far, no enemy survives. Basically, you feel invincible and can overcome anything by your skill. When the other tribes threatened and are making demands, you feel bound to defend your honor. What an insult this is! I can handle my own affairs. Nobody can force me to do anything, and anyone who tries can die trying. What is this? 20 against one? My grandma can do better. 22,000 dead in the first battle. Now you know my strength. 18,000 dead in the second battle. Now you know my power.

In the third battle, look, they are running away so early. We are defeating them as before. We are defeating them as in the first battle. We are... wait a minute, we are surrounded. And our base the city Gibeah has burnt up in smoke. This is not possible. I am going to lose. I am going to die. How is this possible? I am invincible. I never expected to die. Except, it is not so unexpected, is it? We the readers know and see the water that they were swimming in. The reality of the inevitable death has always been there but they have never realized it until that moment. And we can really sense their terror when they come face to face with that reality for the first time. That day the tribe of Benjamin was wiped out except for 600 men.

The reality of inevitable death is also true for us. No one lives forever. No one knows for sure what may befall us the next day. But we often swim in this water without realizing it because we feel like we can live forever. Today, in considering this water, I am not getting all of us to be morbid or paranoid. But knowing that our life on earth does not go on forever does let us put many things into perspective. We can be less foolhardy about being right all the time in conflicts. We can be less cocksure in thinking that we can overcome anybody who disagrees with us. We can also be less hotheaded in defending every cause. In a world which trumpets might makes right, the reality of inevitable death reminds us, that we are not so mighty after all.

The reality of our wrongfully perceived righteousness and the reality of our inevitable death are only two of the many perspectives that we live with everyday. We can continue our lives day in day out, oblivious to these perspectives that we take for granted. But in reminding ourselves to consider the water, I hope we can look into our assumptions more often. In living our lives more mindful of why we do what we do, I hope we can free ourselves from always doing what we see fit. We also remember the water that is the reality of God, and we can live according to his will.

Judges 20:18–48 (Listen)

18 The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Judah shall go up first.”

19 Then the people of Israel rose in the morning and encamped against Gibeah. 20 And the men of Israel went out to fight against Benjamin, and the men of Israel drew up the battle line against them at Gibeah. 21 The people of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and destroyed on that day 22,000 men of the Israelites. 22 But the people, the men of Israel, took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day. 23 And the people of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until the evening. And they inquired of the LORD, “Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Go up against them.”

24 So the people of Israel came near against the people of Benjamin the second day. 25 And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. 26 Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. 27 And the people of Israel inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the LORD said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”

29 So Israel set men in ambush around Gibeah. 30 And the people of Israel went up against the people of Benjamin on the third day and set themselves in array against Gibeah, as at other times. 31 And the people of Benjamin went out against the people and were drawn away from the city. And as at other times they began to strike and kill some of the people in the highways, one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah, and in the open country, about thirty men of Israel. 32 And the people of Benjamin said, “They are routed before us, as at the first.” But the people of Israel said, “Let us flee and draw them away from the city to the highways.” 33 And all the men of Israel rose up out of their place and set themselves in array at Baal-tamar, and the men of Israel who were in ambush rushed out of their place from Maareh-geba. 34 And there came against Gibeah 10,000 chosen men out of all Israel, and the battle was hard, but the Benjaminites did not know that disaster was close upon them. 35 And the LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. 36 So the people of Benjamin saw that they were defeated.

The men of Israel gave ground to Benjamin, because they trusted the men in ambush whom they had set against Gibeah. 37 Then the men in ambush hurried and rushed against Gibeah; the men in ambush moved out and struck all the city with the edge of the sword. 38 Now the appointed signal between the men of Israel and the men in the main ambush was that when they made a great cloud of smoke rise up out of the city 39 the men of Israel should turn in battle. Now Benjamin had begun to strike and kill about thirty men of Israel. They said, “Surely they are defeated before us, as in the first battle.” 40 But when the signal began to rise out of the city in a column of smoke, the Benjaminites looked behind them, and behold, the whole of the city went up in smoke to heaven. 41 Then the men of Israel turned, and the men of Benjamin were dismayed, for they saw that disaster was close upon them. 42 Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel in the direction of the wilderness, but the battle overtook them. And those who came out of the cities were destroying them in their midst. 43 Surrounding the Benjaminites, they pursued them and trod them down from Nohah as far as opposite Gibeah on the east. 44 Eighteen thousand men of Benjamin fell, all of them men of valor. 45 And they turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon. Five thousand men of them were cut down in the highways. And they were pursued hard to Gidom, and 2,000 men of them were struck down. 46 So all who fell that day of Benjamin were 25,000 men who drew the sword, all of them men of valor. 47 But 600 men turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon and remained at the rock of Rimmon four months. 48 And the men of Israel turned back against the people of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, the city, men and beasts and all that they found. And all the towns that they found they set on fire.

(ESV)