Judges For You (Book Review)

“That’s the best Bible study I’ve ever done!”  Such praise is not something a Bible study leader hears very often.  I wish I could say it had a lot to do with my amazing exegetical insights, deft (daft?) use of humor, or thoroughly lovable personality.  Yeah, right.  Ha!  But this was the comment from more than one person in the group at my church that just recently wrapped up a study of the Bible book of Judges.  All things considered, the unique success of this particular study owes the lion’s share of credit to the resource we used: Tim Keller’s Judges For You (JFY; coupled with the accompanying study guide).

Now, I’m a firm believer in a quip I heard once uttered by a popular Bible teacher who responded to the compliment, “You make the Bible come alive!” with a bigger truth: “The Bible makes me come alive.”  I mention this because there is a notion some people hold that goes something like this—the Bible is a hard and tedious book that is difficult to enjoy unless it is mediated by the presentation of a gifted Bible teacher.  Admittedly there is an element of truth in this.  But what I like to believe is that a good author, teacher, or leader is able to help us see what is so inherently wonderful about the Bible.  Most of us need a little help to uncover the treasures throughout God’s Word.  Please understand I’m not tooting my own horn here.  What I’m saying is that I used Keller’s studies to lead our Bible study group to the rich, penetrating, and timeless truths that God placed in Judges.  And boy, did we discover that Judges is relevant for today’s American culture!  It’s a book about pluralism, religious syncretism, faithlessness, spiritual compromise, national apathy, moral depravity, revival, compromised leadership, idolatry, relativism, barbarism, war, sex, tribalism, etc.  The list goes on and on.  It’s especially about our groaning unmet need for a savior.

So what is so special about JFY?  I can think of five reasons why this is an excellent book to use for diving into the book of Judges.  First, it’s written as a devotional commentary.  The prose almost reads like a conversational-style sermon.  This aspect alone makes it especially suited to reach a much larger audience that merely a Bible study group.  Second, the theological perspective is distinctly Christian.  Many times people use OT books to mine for morals, family values, character studies, or history lessons.  If you think these are the primary uses of the OT for Christians, then please understand you’ve missed the point.  JFY is an exemplary book for demonstrating how the OT is best read as it points to Christ.  Third, the format of the study aims for several goals: (1) readability, (2) discipleship, and (3) leadership.  Holding all these in balance is usually a challenge.  For example, if a book is (1) easy to read and (3) aimed at equipping leaders, it’s often not the best resource for (2) feeding the soul.  Thankfully the Good Book Company is producing the “God’s Word For You” series in order to give Christians books that attain all three goals.  Fourth, JFY assumes little to no biblical or theological training, but it also avoids the trap of dumbing down the content.  One of the ways it brings less informed readers along is by including a glossary at the end of the book.  This dictionary of terms includes words and phrases that are infrequently used in common English.  They range from Bible and theological terms, as well as non-religious vocabulary.  Every word found in the glossary is bolded in gray type in the main text of JFY, so without miss distraction the reader may flip to the back when confused.  Fifth, Keller is well-known for his skill in writing for an audience of both Christians and unbelievers.  JFY shines in this respect.  He applies the lessons he gleans from Judges for “you”, whether you’re a seasoned Christian, a new believer, a skeptic, agnostic, spiritual seeker, or someone who has left the faith.  I appreciate this method of varied application because in my view it refuses to “own the Bible” for our own group.  Just as God addresses every kind of person in the Bible, so also JFY attempts to address every single person.

One of the features that I appreciate about JFY is that the author is self-aware enough to recognize that the book of Judges is one of the most offensive books in the Bible to postmodern sensibilities.  Without seeking to defend the Judges’ various accounts of holy war, barbarism, idolatry, and debased immorality, Keller rather turns the tables on the reader so he is on the judgment seat rather than Scripture.  Have you ever tried to make this move in conversation with an opponent?  It’s tricky!  But a gracious example of this common tactical move in the Bible is modeled over and over in this book.  That is not to say Keller is above engaging in apologetical arguments.  On the contrary, he is well-known today as one of most effective Christian apologetics practitioners.  Included in the appendices is a brief article on the issue of holy war which presents the problem, outlines a false solution, and finally offers a better way forward by seeking to understand the Bible for what it is—God’s book of written revelation to humanity rather than humanity’s religious interpretation of its experience of the divine.

So what about the main body of the book?  While the Bible book of Judges is divided into 21 chapters, JFY is arranged (with an introduction) into 13 chapters in order to attempt keeping whole narratives together. (Note the accompanying group study guide is arranged into 6 studies.  When the two are compared it becomes apparent they are arranged to easily sync together.)  The chapter headings in JFY are:

  1. Half-hearted Discipleship (1:1-2:5)
  2. Living among Idols (2:6-3:6)
  3. Othniel and Ehud: Expect the Unexpected (3:7-31)
  4. Deborah and Barak: Ruler and Rescuer (4:1-5:31)
  5. Gideon: The Weak Mighty Warrior (6:1-4)
  6. Gideon: Triumph in Weakness (7:1-25)
  7. Gideon and Abimelech: Ruling as Kings (8:1-10:5)
  8. Jephthah: The Outcast (10:6-12:15)
  9. Samson: A Miraculous Birth (13:1-25)
  10. Samson: The Womanizer (14:1-15:20)
  11. Samson: The Broken Victor (16:1-31)
  12. Men Without Chests (17:1-18:31)
  13. People Without a King (19:1-21:25)

Each chapter is divided into two Parts, and each part ends with 3 questions for reflection that are similar if not identical to questions included in the supplemental study guide (referred to above).  And that what these questions are: for reflection.  They are not looking for yes/no answers, and they are not content review questions (I despise those! Publishers please don’t insult our intelligence.  It’s not a sermon or a lecture—we have it in print and in hand.)  Rather the questions are excellent for personal application and for spurring group discussion.  Here are just a few examples from chapter 11 (p. 158).

  1. How could the outward gains in your life at present become inward losses?  Are there any outward losses that the Lord is using to cause inward gains?
  2. How, and from whom, have you enjoyed receiving gift-live?  When is your love need-love, and how will you love God enough at those points to transform it into gift-love?
  3. Why do you think God will bless you?  How does that display itself in your attitude to obeying him in ways you naturally like; and in ways you naturally find hard?

See what I mean?  It’s hard to NOT apply the Bible when trying to answers questions like these.  In terms of theological tradition and perspective, Keller writes as an evangelical Presbyterian.  He takes the position that Judges is not necessarily a strict chronological record of the 12 judgeships, but that they are regional tribal judges in the land of Israel that could have served with some overlap with other judges.  It appears he dates the era of the judges in line with the early date of the Hebrew exodus, but this detail does not significantly affect the exposition of the book.

Keller describes the book of Judges as “despicable people doing deplorable things” and as “trashy tales about dysfunctional characters” (p. 9).  If this is the case, then a squeamish reader may wonder why study Judges when there are 65 other books in the Bible to choose from.  You might ask, “What business does the book of Judges even have being in the Bible?”  The answer is to reveal God and display the glory of the gospel.  Perhaps the best way to describe JFY and encourage curious readers to give this study a try is by listing the main themes of Judges as highlighted in this devotional commentary.  From the introduction on pages 10-12:

  • God relentlessly offers his grace to people who do not deserve it, or seek it, or even appreciate it after they have been saved by it.
  • God wants lordship over every area of our lives, not just some.
  • There is a tension between grace and law, between conditionality and unconditionality.
  • There is a need for continual spiritual renewal in our lives here on earth, and a way to make that a reality.
  • We need a true Savior, to which all human saviors point, through both their flaws and strengths.
  • God is in charge, no matter what it looks like.

When the few brave souls embarked with me on this study of Judges, a frequently neglected and misunderstood book, we wondered if we would be able to maintain a good attitude, our composure, our spiritual sanity, and frankly our interest in a sustained reading of Judges.  But is wasn’t long before we realized Judges is a goldmine of gospel riches.  Remember what they said when we finished: “That’s the best Bible study I’ve ever done!”  If you don’t believe me, then listen to them and begin your study of Judges, either alone, with a friend, or with a group.  You’ll be happy you did.

Resources

Tim Keller on Judges and OT Violence, by Derek Rishmawy

The Strength of Samson, by Tim Keller

Judges: The Flawed and the Flawless [Judges For You small group guide], by Tim Keller

Free sermons and talks on Judges from Tim Keller’s church

Judges For You “Wordle

Reviews

Amazon

Blogging Theologically

Craig Hurst

Daniel Threlfall

Goodreads

Gospel Coalition

Jeff Randleman

Kevin Fiske

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