“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25 ESV). If we were to summarize the book of Judges, this would be a good way to do it.
Judges recounts Israel’s history from the death of its second leader, Joshua, to the birth of Israel’s first prophet, Samuel (where the book of 1 Samuel begins). In other words, the nation of Israel has no leader. We don’t know who wrote Judges or exactly when it was written, but the purpose of the book is clear: Judges warns Israel that they will never be faithful to God without the leadership of a righteous king.
The book of Judges tells of twelve “heroes” (or “judges”) in Israel. Each story follows a similar pattern. God’s people begin to imitate their Canaanite neighbors by worshiping false gods. Eventually, they abandon the true God who rescued them from Egypt and gave them a homeland. As a result, God disciplines his people by allowing them to be defeated by their enemies. Then the people cry out to God for help. He hears them and sends a judge to save them from their enemies (Judges 2:11-23). These events become a cycle.
The twelve judges were far from perfect! Barak and Gideon were slow to trust God (Judges 4; 6), Jephthah made a foolish vow (Judges 11:31), and Samson had a weak spot for dangerous women (Judges 14; 16). As the book of Judges progresses, the judges themselves become less and less exemplary, and the sins of the people become more and more startling.
Judges ends with two stories that reveal how far the people have fallen. The first story tells of a priest—the person who is supposed to lead the people to worship God—who hires himself out to tend a rich man’s idol (Judges 17). The tribe of Dan then raids the rich man’s home, bribes the priest, and steals the idol (Judges 18). The corruption spreads from one family to the entire tribe.
Judges warns Israel that they will never be faithful to God without the leadership of a righteous king.
The second story is a gruesome account of gang violence, rape, and murder (Judges 19). These crimes ultimately lead to civil war and the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20-21). As Israel descends into lawlessness, the book of Judges reminds us, “In those days there was no king in Israel” (19:1; 21:25).
Apart from the hope of a righteous king, Judges is a grim book. The people betray God in spite of the rescuers he sends. Israel needs a ruler who will lead them back to God and back to faithful obedience.
Here’s a spoiler alert: In the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, Israel’s kings don’t fare much better than the judges did. Instead of guiding Israel back to God, they lead the people into rebellion, which results in God punishing the nation by sending them into exile.
Thankfully, we read Judges from the other side of the cross of Jesus Christ, the promised Anointed One and righteous King of Israel. We know that God sent his own Son, the long awaited Son of David, to be our righteous King. Because he died for the sins of the world, Jesus has the power to rescue us, not just from enemies, but from ourselves. He is the only king who can make his people righteous and lead us back to our merciful God. Open Judges, and you will long for Jesus—for his leadership in Israel, and for his leadership in your life.