The Power of an Obeying Woman: Deborah

Judges 4:1-24

August 28, 2005 | Brian Bill

I received a phone call this week from someone who told me about a couple who had just been married.  As they tried to figure out their various roles and responsibilities, the wife told her new husband that it was his job to make the coffee every morning.  The husband didn’t really like this idea and wanted to negotiate but his wife was persistent.  In fact, she told him that male coffee-making was in the Bible.  He scanned his Scripture memory and told her that he didn’t think this was a biblical command.  She went to get her Bible and opened it up to a book that settled the issue: “He-brews.”

The Bible is filled with godly examples of men and women who minister with various roles and responsibilities.  For the next two weeks we’re going to focus on two models of mentoring.  This morning we’ll learn how a “she-brew” named Deborah exhibited the power of an obeying woman; next week we’ll study how Barnabas portrays the power of an obeying man.

Turn with me to the Book of Judges.  By the way, I encourage you to bring your Bible to church each week.  We’re going to camp in the fourth chapter today and you will get much more out of this sermon if you follow along in your own copy of the Scriptures.  If you don’t have a Bible, we’ll help you get one and we’re even working on a way for you to borrow one on Sunday mornings so you can follow along.  The Book of Judges chronicles a very tough time in the history of Israel, serving as a hinge between the successes of Joshua and leading up to the establishment of the monarchy in 1 Samuel.   Judges 2:18-19 summarizes the spiritual situation: “Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived…But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers…” 

The very last phrase of this book gives us insight into why things were going south for them: “…everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25).  And because of that, on seven different occasions we read of God’s people cycling through a period of rebellion which led to retribution from God.  After suffering for some time, they would eventually repent and then be restored to a time of rest and peace.  But then they’d begin the process all over again.  

Do you see yourself in this cycle?  We’re all prone to drift downward because our bent is toward backsliding.  In fact, sometimes when our lives are too comfortable we start to coast.  That’s what happened in Judges 3:30 where we read that “the land had peace for 80 years.”  During this time of ease they got soft spiritually and then slid south.  This cycle is played out again in Judges 4.

1. Rebellion (1). 

We see in verse 1 that after a judge named Ehud died, “the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord.”  We know from reading the rest of the book that the people became repeatedly involved in idolatry and immorality.  Instead of serving God they became selfish and sinful, turning their backs on God.

2. Retribution (2-3a). 

In verse 2, as a result of their rebellion, God sold them into slavery where they were tormented and cruelly oppressed for 20 years.  Interestingly, the word “oppressed” is the same word used in Exodus 3:9 to describe the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians.  The commander of these enemies was a man named Sisera, who had at his disposal 900 iron chariots that were used to keep the Israelites in bondage.  Plated with iron they were impenetrable.  Drawn by as many as ten horses, each chariot carried a driver and four archers.  Pockets on the side carried extra bows and hundreds of arrows and sharp knife blades spun on the heavy wheels so drivers could cut the enemy to pieces just by driving next to them.   We need to turn to Judges 5:6-7 in order to get a picture of how decimated the Israelites were: “…The roads were abandoned; travelers took to winding paths.  Village life in Israel ceased…”  The only safe places were up in the hills.   Matthew Henry points out that the Israelites were unable to do any trading, traveling or tilling in their fields because the enemy was within their borders and launched their acts of terror at every turn.  

3. Repentance (3b). 

The last part of verse 3 tells us that after 20 years of living like this, finally “they cried to the Lord for help.”  I sometimes wonder why they waited so long to cry out to the Lord but then I realize that we do the same thing today.  Perhaps you are going through some deep weeds right now and yet you haven’t turned to the Lord.  While it took them two decades before they turned from their backslidden behavior, at least they did it.  Friend, it’s never too late to come back to the Lord and it’s as simple as crying to him for help.  A woman sent an email some time ago in which she summed up the plight of many people today: “I want to get close to Christ but sometimes it’s like I can only get so close and then it feels like I’m pulling away from Him.”  Aren’t there times when God seems near and other times when you wonder where He went?  As someone has said, if God seems far away, who do you think moved?  It’s time to cry out to Him.  Take comfort in the words of Psalm 106:44: “But he took note of their distress when he heard their cry.”

4. Restoration (4-23).

At the end of verse 3 God’s people look to the Lord for help and immediately in verse 4 we’re introduced to a deliverer named Deborah.  She is God’s answer to their agony and holds a unique place in biblical history as the first and only woman to be both a judge and a prophetess.   Deborah’s name literally means, “Honeybee.”  One commentator remarked that she was “sweet to her friends and sharp to her foes.”   As we will see, God used this bold bee to sting Sisera.

An Extraordinary Woman (4-5)

Deborah was a woman with at least four jobs – can any of you women relate to this?  First, she was a wife.  Second, according to Judges 5:7, she was a mother.  Third, she was a judge.  And finally, she was a prophetess who spoke God’s Word to people.  Her job was not to tell people what she thought, but to tell people what God thought.  We see this in verses 4-5: “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.  She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided.”  There are some qualities in Deborah’s life that make her an extraordinary woman. 

  • She spoke for God.   Prophetesses are not without precedent in Scripture.  Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), the wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3), Anna (Luke 2:36) and the four daughters of Phillip (Acts 21:9) fulfilled this role.  
  • She settled disputes.  She was an arbitrator and a peacemaker.  Godly women have been doing this for centuries–as wives and mothers and in many other ways.  Perhaps Deborah’s prior experience in her own home prepared her to be a judge and prophet.  Where would the church, and for that matter the world, be without women like Deborah?
  • She was greatly respected.   In that culture, women were not treated equally with men and were generally relegated to behind-the-scenes roles.  To be as esteemed as she was, Deborah must have excelled in wisdom and, even more importantly, had a godly understanding of people and their problems.  But most of all, she was known as a woman who walked with God.
  • She obeyed God.  She had not taken the mantle of ministry upon herself but was simply obedient to the purpose God had for her.  She was summoned by God, and she obeyed.  As Henry Blackaby has said in his book “Experiencing God,” effective Christian ministry is a matter of joining in with God where he is working, not just deciding for ourselves what we can do for God, then doing it.  Without the Lord’s enabling and equipping, we can’t accomplish a thing.  Jesus told his disciples (and us), “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  

An Extraordinary Work (6-16)

While she is sitting under a palm tree giving out God’s Word and gracing people with His wisdom, she sends one of her helpers to bring Barak, an Israelite General.  When Barak arrives, she gives him this message in verses 6-7: “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor.  I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” I want you to notice first of all, that she refers to God as Yahweh, His covenant name.  He is King and personally committed to a covenant relationship with His people.  Secondly, she is not making a suggestion about strategic warfare; she is giving a command from God himself.  Thirdly, Deborah makes it very clear that if Barak does all this, the Lord will give Sisera into his hands.

Let’s pause here for a moment.  Deborah is making some pretty bold statements.  Barak is probably not so sure about this.  After all, what does she know about doing battle with these bloodthirsty terrorists?  He knew first-hand how wicked and powerful these fully armed men were.  The Israelites didn’t even have an army, much less any weapons.  And so, he does what any brave guy would do and asks Deborah to go with him!  Look at verse 8: “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” Maybe he asked her to come along because as a man he didn’t want to ask for directions!  Actually, he could have been afraid or worried that no one would follow him or perhaps since Deborah spoke for God, he just wanted to make sure he had access to the Almighty.  But, his demanding spirit indicates his lack of faith as he trusted Deborah’s relationship with God more than his own.  He is reluctant to fully obey a very clear command from the “Lord, the God of Israel.”  

Deborah agrees to go but tells him that he will forfeit any honor because “the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.”  Barak rallies his 10,000 troops and assembles them on Mount Tabor.  Sisera hears about this and brings his 900 iron chariots to the valley near the Kishon River.  Let’s pick up the story in verse 14: “Then Deborah said to Barak, ‘Go!  This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands.  Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?’   So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men.”  Deborah gave the word and Barak did the work.  I want you to notice again how committed Deborah is to God and to His promises.  She fired Barak up to go and quickly said that the Lord had already given Sisera into his hands because the Lord had gone ahead of them.

Deborah knew a lot because she knew God!

Let’s think about this battle strategy from a human viewpoint.  The Israelites are up on the mountain where the iron chariots cannot reach them.  The Canaanite warriors with their fighting machines are down in the valley.  By going down into the valley they would lose their strategic advantage.  How can these unarmed Israelites stand a chance?  The Canaanites had 20 years of victory and military dominance; Barak had 20 years of defeat behind him.  Sisera probably had top military strategists with him; Barak had Deborah.  What does Deborah know about fighting battles?  Actually, Deborah knew a lot because she knew God!  If God commanded it, He would fulfill His promises.  In her mind, God had already given the victory, even before the battle began.  And since the Lord was going on ahead as their true Leader, everything would be taken care of.  I love watching how God uses women like this in our church.  Bless you for your faith and trust in God.  Thank you for modeling what it means to believe in God and for how you behave accordingly.  

Look at verse 15: “At Barak’s advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot.”  While God routed Sisera, notice that he did so when Barak advanced.  God often chooses to work in tandem with our obedience.  Deborah obeyed first by speaking God’s truth and urging Barak to obey.  Barak obeyed and God slayed their foes.  The word “routed” is also translated “discomfited,” which means “to put in commotion and to disturb.”  Turn over to Judges 5:20-21 to read how God did this: “From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.  The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon.”  

All of the forces of God’s creation were arrayed against Israel’s enemies.  The Canaanites worshipped the stars and now they turned against Sisera and the raging river routed the troops.  This is really cool because it wasn’t even the rainy season.  Like Hurricane Katrina, God unleashed the waters of heaven at that very moment, turning the dry ground into a muddy quagmire, with the banks of the Kishon sending forth flood waters that rendered the mighty chariots useless.  All the troops of Sisera were killed.

Verse 17 tells us that Sisera got away and fled to the tent of a woman named Jael.  He asked her for refuge because his people were on friendly terms with her people.  She invited him in and covered him up.  In verse 19 he asks for some water and she goes a step further and gives him some warm milk, which served as a sedative that made him sleepy.  While he was fast asleep, Jael picked up a tent peg and a hammer and according to verse 21, “She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”  A few minutes later Barak shows up and finds out that Jael had killed his foe, fulfilling the prophecy from Deborah that the honor would go to a woman.

This story is clearly about two women, one who used her head and her heart; and another who used her hands and a hammer.  Barak and Sisera played much smaller roles.  What can we learn from this account?  

Lessons to Learn

1. Do what God calls you to do. 

God is already where He is pointing you to go

Deborah was a wife and a mother, a judge and a prophetess.  She fulfilled her calling to her family and then made herself available to help people live in peace with one another.  And, when God had a message He wanted to communicate, she willingly spoke up.  When God revealed a task for her, she took Him at His word and obeyed.  What is God calling you to do right now?  Women, if you’re married, your first responsibility is to your family.  If you’re single right now, you have even more time to throw yourself into ministry.  What is He prompting you to do?  Will you be like Deborah and do what God wants you to do or will you continue to hold back and be paralyzed like Barak was?  Remember, no matter where God is leading you, He will always go ahead of you.  Or, to say it another way: God is already where He is pointing you to go.

2. If you’re a husband, allow your wife the freedom to flourish. 

All we know about Deborah’s husband is his name (Lappidoth).  He obviously wasn’t threatened by her ministry calling.  Perhaps he even stayed home with the children so she could do what God was calling her to do.  Guys, one of the most important things you can do is to encourage your wife to be all that God wants her to be, and to do all that God is calling her to do.  Allow me just for a moment to address all men, whether you’re married or not.  Are there any ways that you look down on women?  Have you been discounting the value of the Deborah’s in this church, and maybe in your own home?  What can you do to change that attitude?  Is there anyone you need to apologize to?

3. God loves to do the extraordinary with ordinary people. 

The key to Deborah’s fruitfulness was her faithfulness.  Don’t tell yourself that you’re not good enough or smart enough or whatever enough.  Offer yourself fully to God and He will make the impossible possible.  God doesn’t see problems like we do because He knows in advance what He’s going to do to solve them.  What obstacles are you overwhelmed with right now?  Is your faith faltering in a specific area?  It’s time to move forward even when it doesn’t make sense.

4. Recognize that we’re in a big battle. 

God is looking for women who walk with Him and are willing to work for Him.  God is more committed to molding our character than He is to giving us comfortable lives.  Will you stand up and be counted?  Will you move forward on your knees?  

5. We need each other. 

Barak needed Deborah and Deborah needed Barak.  Jael did her part and Deborah’s husband did his.  There are a number of workers in this story, like the six tribes who rallied together in order to do battle.  But there were also some shirkers.  Judges 5 tells us that there were some warriors and there were some wimps.  There were 12 tribes but only half of them stepped up to the plate.   We don’t hear anything from two of the tribes – Judah and Simeon, perhaps because they are so far away.  Maybe they felt like this wasn’t their issue so they just disappeared.  That attitude is still present today.  It’s easy for all of us to think that what happens away from us is no concern to us.  Perhaps that’s why we don’t pray for our missionaries as much as we should or why we can hear about tragedies in other countries and not be moved to do something to help.  

In Judges 5:15-17 we read about the other four tribes that came up with some convenient, and I might add, pretty common, excuses.

  • Procrastination (Reuben): “In the districts of Reuben there was much searching of heart.”  They may have thought about coming to help but never made it.  Some of us struggle with this as well.  We might want to do something but it never gets done.  We need to be more like Deborah and do what God calls us to do – right away.
  • Protective (Gilead): “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan.”  They didn’t want to get involved in something that might get messy and just wanted to protect themselves.  They were more focused on themselves than on others.  
  • Predisposed (Dan): “And Dan, why did he linger by the ships?”  The people in this tribe were just too busy with other things.  Since their possessions possessed them, they were not willing to leave.  Do you struggle with this?
  • Pleasure (Asher): “Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves.”  They were intent on just recreating and having fun.  They’d rather golf on Sunday mornings than give God what He deserves.  That sounds a bit like America today, doesn’t it?

What kind of excuses do you give for not serving or for not growing or for staying bitter or for spotty church attendance?  Contrast this with what is said about two other tribes in verse 18: “The people of Zebulun risked their very lives; so did Naphtali on the heights of the field.”

6. Don’t forget to give God the glory. 

If chapter 4 is the story of how God used Deborah; chapter 5 is the song that Deborah wrote to recount what God did and to give Him the glory.  Music captures our commitment and catapults us to focus on the majesty of God.  God loves music.  There are so many times in the Psalms that God tells us to sing to Him.  Thinking of the singers at the watering places, Deborah recalls their lyrics in Judges 5:11: “They recite the righteous acts of the Lord.”  Music means a lot to the women in my home.  I often hear different songs coming from their mouths throughout the day.  Pick up some praise music, listen to Christian radio, and by all means, sing with gusto on Sunday mornings.  It might be a good idea for you to write down some lyrics of praise in your journal or on a piece of paper.  You might start by praying and praising through Judges 5.

7. Find a Deborah to learn from. 

If you are a new believer or struggling in any way, it’s important that you have a Deborah in your life.  Barak drew strength from the faith of Deborah and was able to do what he was called to do because he leaned on her.  Some of you need to find others to pour your life into.  It will take effort, but as Judges 4:5 points out, when a woman walks with God, people will come to her for help.

Sweet Surrender

Turn to Judges 5:1-2 where we see that actually both Deborah and Barak sang this song of praise together.  Commentators believe that Deborah sang all the verses and Barak responded antiphonally, reciting verse 2 after each phrase sung by Deborah: “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves – praise the Lord!”  Some of you are leaders.  If so, it’s time to lead.  All of us need to do what the second part of this verse states and offer ourselves willingly to the Lord.  This same idea is repeated in verse 9: “My heart is with Israel’s princes, with the willing volunteers among the people.  Praise the Lord!”  Let me close with a question: Have you willingly offered yourself to the Lord and are you a willing volunteer?  

  • It’s time to surrender!
  • It’s time to serve!
  • It’s time to sing praises to God!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?