Deborah

Truly an Exceptional Servant

by Bruce A. Ritter

They were once slaves in a foreign land. God raised up a deliverer, Moses, whom He used to free the Israelites from bondage and lead them out of Egypt. Despite many trials and setbacks, God delivered Israel into the Promised Land.

When Moses died, God worked through another faithful leader, Joshua, whom He used to lead Israel into victory over fierce, battle-tested warrior nations. Israel was well on its way to conquering the Promised Land.

But something happened after Joshua died. The people lost their zeal. The Israelites grew weary of driving out the Canaanites. They were tired of besieging city after city. They wanted to slow down—“lay back”—and not work so hard at driving away the pagan influences from their lives.

And so the people of Israel tolerated their idol-worshipping neighbors. They grew accustomed to their ungodly beliefs. As time passed, a new generation of Israelites came into adulthood, one that was easily enticed by the sexually loose and morally corrupt ways of the Canaanites.

God had intended that Israel become a shining example of His Way. His laws were to be their wisdom, leading the Israelites to be blessed for their obedience. The surrounding nations were to take note and thus yearn to know about God’s laws. But Israel failed to become a model nation.

Instead, the Israelites entered a cycle of rejecting God in favor of idols; suffering the military conquests of enemy nations; crying out to God for deliverance; God sending a deliverer to deliver His people from sore trial; the people rejoicing, and then following the righteous example of that deliverer until his death; and the Israelites then rejecting God yet again (Jdg. 2:11-23).

This repetitive cycle is recorded in the book of Judges, which refers to a time when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

During this period, God used judges—“deliverers”—to deliver His people from affliction. Sometimes judges led armies, as Gideon did against the Midianites. Other times, judges worked as an army of one; take Samson, for instance. The servants God used to judge His people were men—except for one woman. Her name was Deborah.

Making Exceptions

The Bible clearly shows that God uses men to head His Work. But this is not to say that God does not work through women. In fact, He does!

He conceived His Son, Jesus, through a woman. He works through physical and spiritual Israel, which He calls a woman (Rev. 12). And just as He has done with prophets, such as Elijah, Jeremiah and others, God has worked through prophetesses. A prophet (or prophetess) was a servant whom God inspired to record His messages to the people at large or to certain leaders. Though they sometimes served as counselors to kings, prophets were not executive leaders, per se. They did not lead groups of people—except when they held other roles carrying executive authority.

For instance, Moses and Samuel were prophets, but they were also judges. As such, they had the authority to lead Israel and render civil rulings among the people.

King David was a prophet (Acts 2:29-30), as well as a royal ruler. This latter office empowered him to rule over Israel.

Deborah was both a prophetess and a judge (Jdg. 4:4). As a prophetess, God used her to deliver His messages to His people. As a judge, God gave her the authority to render civil court decisions. Yet there was one authority of being a judge that Deborah did not take to herself. This will be explained later.

As the Supreme Ruler and Lawgiver, God is the ultimate authority, and He has the authority to make exceptions. Consider the following examples:

• For people to receive God’s Holy Spirit, they must first repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). But God made an exception when He gave Cornelius, the Church’s first Gentile convert, His Spirit before baptism (10:1-2, 44-45). God did this so there would be no doubt that He was calling non-Israelites into the Body of Christ, for “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that fears Him, and works righteousness, is accepted with Him” (vs. 34-35).

• Rather than working through a righteous servant, God used the false prophet Balaam to bless the nation of Israel. God did this to prove that nothing could keep Him from fulfilling His promise to His people.

• God calls the “foolish,” “weak,” “base” and “despised” of the world into His Church. Yet, clearly, He made an exception with Moses, who was reared and trained as an Egyptian prince. Think of others who were among the “movers and shakers” of this world before their calling, the apostle Paul, Herbert W. Armstrong and others.

• God considered ancient Israel to be His special people, yet He gave His Spirit to only a tiny few.

• Ever since Adam and Eve rejected God in the Garden of Eden, the whole world has been cut off from Him. Yet God calls a few here and there.

All of these are exceptions that God made to address extraordinary circumstances. In Deborah’s case, Israel lacked leadership, courage, wisdom, faith and zeal for God’s Way. God knew that His people needed a wise judge who would render just decisions—someone who would reject the folly of human reasoning and place their trust in Him.

Why Deborah?

Judges 4, verse 5, states that Deborah “dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.”

Note that she did not go to the people; the people came to her. She must have been known for her sound-mindedness and sense of justice. The Israelites came to her to receive just decisions.

Deborah was also recognized for her sense of decency and order. We know this because, as a prophetess, she was careful to voice God’s will, and not her own. She was yielded to Him.

God commanded Deborah to call for a man named Barak, whom He planned to use for a special military mission. When Barak came before her, she said to him, “Listen to the words of the Eternal God of Israel: ‘Go gather 10,000 warriors from the tribe of Naphtali and Zebulun, and get ready to do battle at Mount Tabor. I shall bring Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, against you. I shall bring you victory over his chariots of iron and his fighting force, and I will deliver Sisera into your hands at the River Kishon.’”

For years, the Israelites had intermarried with idol-worshipping nations, which God had long ago commanded Israel to destroy. God once again found that He had to teach His people to fear and obey Him, which was the only way they could taste true success. So God decided to use Jabin, king of Canaan, as His tool of Israel’s punishment.

Headquartered at the city of Hazor, Jabin sent 900 deadly iron-wheeled chariots and a massive army to descend upon the Israelites, spreading panic and terror throughout the land. For the next 20 years, King Jabin, with Sisera as his army commander, maintained brutal control over the lives of the Israelites (Jdg. 4:1-3).

When Deborah finished delivering God’s message, she expected Barak to rush out to do God’s will. But Barak was enslaved by fear—and this kept him from fully trusting God to deliver him from Jabin’s ruthless warriors.

And so he gave Deborah an ultimatum: “If you will go with me, then I will go: but if you will not go with me, then I will not go” (vs. 8).

Barak was suffering from spiritual short-sightedness. He could not see the “big picture” of God’s Master Plan and how he fit into it. This made Barak more afraid of the physical enemy, which he could see, than the God of the universe, whom he could not see.

Though taken back by his demand, Deborah said, “I will surely go with you: notwithstanding the journey that you take shall not be for your honor; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (vs. 9). In effect, she said, “You should have put your faith in God, not in me, His servant, nor in any other human being. You should be grateful that God has decided to still use you. Yet, because you have let your fear get the best of you, Sisera’s life will be taken by the hand of a woman. She will get the glory—not you!”

On one hand, Deborah did not limit God. She did not think to herself, “Oh, I’m just a woman. God couldn’t possibly use me.” Deborah accepted her roles as judge and prophetess, and allowed God to use her as He saw fit.

On the other hand, she did not try to get ahead of God and seek authority that did not belong to her. Carnally, she could have capitalized on her reputation for making good judgments. She could have, as Miriam the prophetess briefly did (see Numbers 12), tried to exalt herself. But Deborah knew her boundaries.

She and Barak were supposed to work together as a team. Barak was to lead the military into battle; Deborah was to provide wise counsel and support, and express God’s will to the leader of the army. Because Barak initially failed to provide strong leadership, Deborah had to “stand in the gap” (Ezek. 22:29-30), but she did so reluctantly.

An Exceptional Servant

Deborah stood for courage in a time of fear. She stood for godly wisdom in a time of human reasoning, when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” She stood for decency and order in a chaotic time of sexual perversity and idolatry. Deborah was a leader who was an exception to the rule in her time.

Sadly, such exceptional character today is rare, just as it was in Deborah’s time.

Today, people (and not just young people) dress as though they were reared in barns. They wear clothing showing flesh that should be covered up. They wear T-shirts and shorts with messages that are crass and crude. They wear their pants far lower than they should, and then wonder why they have trouble walking. They wear their dresses far higher than they should, and then wonder why they are attracting unwanted attention.

Are you an exception?

Today, people eat with their elbows on the table and talk with mouths full of food. They do not know a salad fork from a soup spoon. The words “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” have been removed from their vocabulary, replaced with “uh-huh” and other grunts. The thought of standing up when the elderly approach them has become a foreign concept. Waiting for people to finish their sentences before speaking is uncommon.

Are you an exception?

Today, people say just about anything and everything without giving it a second thought. Anyone who uses proper grammar sticks out like a sore thumb. But this should be no surprise in a world in which God’s name is thrown around like garbage on television shows, in movies, on the Internet, and in schools and homes.

Are you an exception?

Today, just as in Deborah’s time, people live according to what is right in their own eyes. Doing the right thing and treating others as you would have them treat you have been replaced with “Every man for himself.” Most people live life moment to moment, thinking of only the “here and now,” seldom weighing the consequences before acting.

Will you be an exception to “a generation that curses their father, and does not bless their mother”—“that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness”—that have “lofty…eyes,” and “whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives” (Prov. 30:11-14)?

As you have read, God makes exceptions. He can use anyone in His Plan toward His kingdom—as long as that person is yielded to Him.

Could this be you?