A video recording of this post can be found in the link below (starting at 21min).
When last have you woken from a dream where you defend yourself, but you find you have no power? Or you dreamt that you arrive at work in your pyjamas or underwear?
Dreams such as these are commonly associated with subconscious feelings of vulnerability, insufficiency and the fear of failure – the sense that you don’t have what it takes to do what I want to or what is expected of me. Such feelings can leave one frustrated and hopeless – especially if the dream or promise you pursue is genuinely significant.
As believers, such a sense of powerlessness often leads to self-doubt and even shakes our faith in the Bible and God as we try to make sense of failures and the apparent lack of help from God.
The introduction to the book of Judges records such a situation in Israel’s history (1:1-19). The book opens with the account of Israel’s failure to fully occupy their Promised Land, leading to the repeated cycle of apostasy, then oppression, repentance and God’s deliverance through a judge (2:11-16).
In this introduction, we find one of the greatest paradoxes Bible: the Almighty covenant-God of Israel “was with [the tribe of] Judah” and they tasted success in the highlands, but they could not conquer the plains because of the Canaanite’s iron chariots (1:19).
The promise, the paradox and the plain problem
The Lord promised Israel the land (Joshua 1:13) as well as a victory by the hand of Judah (Judges 1:2). The tribe of Judah had tasted significant successes in the quest for their allotted Promised Land (1:17-18). Still, their conquest came to an end at the plains: they did not have what it takes to conquer the Canaanites in the lowlands because their enemy had iron chariots. While having the Lord’s promise and presence, they did not have the power to possess their promise.
What was the issue with iron chariots? Simply stated: the Canaanites had them while the Israelites did not have them. The chariots present superior military technology and can be likened to a modern-day battle where riflemen are confronted with tanks in the open field. The outcome of this battle is decided before it begins because of superior speed, armour and firing power. Likewise, the iron chariots had superior speed, strength (armour) and height over footmen, giving the Canaanites advantage in combat.
Why bother with the plains? Why not just live around them? While the conquered mountain fortresses gave strategic defensive power to the Judeans, the plains offered the (essential) potential of food cultivation, access to water, trade routes and nation-building.
The open plains are ideal for pasturelands, plating grains and vineyards etc. The plains connected the cities through routes allowing for trade and other cultural connections. Without the plains, there would be limited agriculture, limited market economy, limited tribal (and national) coherence. The plains were where life really happened. Without the plains, Judah was confined to an isolated, crippling existence in the hills, cut off from the rest of society. Without the plains, the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey” would never be realised. This was Judah’s big frustration.
Can you identify with Judah’s frustration?
Looking intently at this historic account one can easily identify with the disillusioned Judeans. They grew up in the wilderness with the promise of possessing “a land flowing with milk and honey”. The had seen God’s presence and power as they passed through the Jordan River, conquered Jericho, allotted the land to the tribes and taken the mountain fortresses. Evidently, the Lord was with them! But now Judah could not gain victory over the Canaanites in the lowlands, because their enemies had superior technology.
I imagine they felt frustrated at an unfulfilled promise they hoped and lived for; they have come so far! Their defeat and inability to conquer their foes left them ashamed and vulnerable, fearful of a superior opponent. They felt powerless and hopeless. A sense of confusion and bewilderment would cause them to question every decision that led them here: the reason for their past successes, their identity as God’s chosen ones, the Promise of inheritance and even the One who made the Promise. Their failure to fulfil their journey was no small thing – this defeat shook the nation.
One can easily see why the author sets this “iron chariot” dilemma as background to the cycle of apostasy-oppression-deliverance in the book of Judges. Judah’s inability to drive out the Canaanites caused Israel to lose faith in their Lord and turn to other idols, leading to their oppression and need for deliverance. Disappointment can breed disillusionment, doubt and defection.
We have all tasted this disappointment as a dream disappeared like a promising rain cloud before the sun. We have all felt the shame of failure, the frustration of powerlessness, the loss of confidence and conviction. Some acknowledged a sense of abandonment when you needed God most. We have all been plagued by the incessant doubt in one’s ability, one’s course of action, even the miracles we’ve tasted and promises we lived by. We can all identify with Juda’s failure and the vulnerability it flings you into.
What are the iron chariots that possess your plains? What is your unfulfilled promise? Make no mistake – to give up on this promise will haunt you all your life as it did Israel.
An unfulfilled promise: a missed stake
Running into a brick wall quickly loses its appeal. After a few failed attempts, it might seem easier to reframe our goals or promises to try and live around the plains possessed by Canaanite charioteers. Like the Judeans, we can try to make our living in the hills as secure and comfortable as possible, or alternatively make peace with the Canaanites, allowing some sense of freedom. But these peace treaties with the enemy lead to the degenerative cycle of apostasy, oppression, and God’s faithful deliverance.
For Judah, giving up on their promise led to their apostasy. Their defeat bred disillusionment, tempting them to not only reframe their purpose (possessing the Promised Land) but also alter their identity. Judah forgot that they were God’s chosen people, saved from slavery and oppression, made into a new nation – a kingdom of priests. They were called to inherit the promised land, live under his law to reveal his benevolent character and purpose for creation. Judah’s Promised Land was not only meant for their own peace and prosperity – possessing their promise meant participating in God’s redemption of creation. Israel was saved and called to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 60:3) – a sign of God’s redemption available to all the nations of the world. For this reason, we see throughout the book of Judges the Lord urging Israel to not live a life of compromise, but rather to “possess the land.” (2:6; 18:19)
If God makes you a promise, you can bet that it forms part of his redemptive plan for all creation; the promise is your invitation to partner with him. That is why you will repeatedly hear the Spirit urging you to “Go on, possess your promise! Don’t give up!” When last did you hear this prompting of the Spirit? Can you see how your unfulfilled dreams and promises fit into Christ’s “renewal of all things” (Matthew 28:19)?
A simple step of faith: reposition, restore
“The Lord was with Judah… but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.” This verse speaks of the error of presumption: the forwardness of thinking that approval alone by God guarantees success. But here we see that Judah indeed had God’s favour and company, yet lacked the proper strategy and technology to secure their victory. The Canaanites advantage in the plain was iron chariots; the strategic equivalence of iron chariots (or something similar) would have secured their conquest of the plains. Judah’s sin was passive presumption, the neglect of preparing to possess the plains.
The Bible teaches us that God honours passion and productivity, but that he despises passivity. An honest reflection of our own lives would reveal that sinful humanity are prone to inaction and procrastination; we would rather do nothing and wait on God (or anyone else) to fix our problems or fulfil our purposes on our behalf. This account, like the rest of Biblical history, reminds us that God created mankind as a co-worker in his creation and redemption of this world.
Throughout Scripture, God calls for practical preparation as he invites us to participate in his promised redemption. Noah had to build the ark as God directed (Genesis 6:13), and his family was saved. Elisha commanded the widow to gather as many jars as he could to receive the miracle of the multiplying oil (2 Kings 4:1-7), and God provided in proportion to her preparation.
For Israel, mastering the skills of ironwork and horsemanship would secure their conquest of the Promised Land. What would secure your promise? What practical preparation would position you to possess your promise?
On two occasions in my life, I heard the Lord say to me “reposition yourself.” Both times I understood that the Lord prompted me to grow in a specific way, which required studying and learning from others so that I may become the person who has the competence, character and perspective to walk deeper into the purpose the Lord promised me. What would “reposition and prepare to possess your promise” mean to you? What is the practical response the Lord is inviting you to walk into at this time?
Judah found themselves wholly unprepared and disempowered to possess the Promised Land the Lord had allotted to them, for his purpose. This left them disillusioned, frustrated and oppressed by the Canaanites. May you never find yourself unprepared to possess your allotted promise, for God’s sake.