“Repentance,” exasperation and mercy

Judges 10-12 is our Bible reading passage for today.  In Judges 10:10-16 we read:

And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” And the Lord said to the people of Israel, “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines?  The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more.  Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” And the people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.”  So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.

Kim Riddlebarger helps us understand:

YHWH’s response to Israel’s “repentance” is to remind his people of all that he has done for Israel.

YHWH recounts his perfect track record of promise-keeping to his disobedient people. He, of course, has done everything that he promised to do. He has been faithful. But his people, on the other hand, have not. Israel has forsaken him, despite all that he had done. To put it bluntly, Israel has committed spiritual adultery by serving other “gods.” And so, YHWH rejects the prayers of his people, threatening to save (“rescue”) them no more. If it is Baal the Israelites want, then it is Baal they’ll get. This is a strong indication that Israel’s prayer (verse 10), is not a genuine turning from sin to YHWH, but a cry to be delivered from yet another horrific situation which they had brought upon themselves.
YHWH’s rebuke cuts the people of Israel to the heart. As we read in verse 15, “And the people of Israel said to the Lord, `We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’” The situation throughout Israel was terrible. Ammonite raiding parties struck deep into the heart of Israel, while the Philistines created serious trouble to the southwest. The people of Israel cry out again, knowing that YHWH is their only hope of deliverance. There are even hints of genuine repentance in verse 16. “So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord.” This indicates that there was not only a general sense among the people that their current predicament stemmed from the fact that they had turned their backs on YHWH and that they must seek his favor, but this tells us that the people of Israel also knew that their cries for help must be accompanied by the removal of the false “gods” and false religion which had then spread throughout Israel.
YHWH’s reaction to his people’s “repentance” is one of complete exasperation. We read that “he became impatient over the misery of Israel.” Some have taken this to mean that YHWH accepted the genuine nature of the people’s repentance, and relented from bring additional trials upon them. Others have taken the passage to demonstrate that this is an expression of YHWH’s frustration (exasperation) with his people because of Israel’s repeated cries for deliverance, despite an absence of genuine repentance.    I take the latter to be the case. This means that YHWH is exasperated with his covenant people who have gotten themselves into deep trouble yet again. YHWH is not repenting of his purpose, nor is he sorry that Israel has come under those covenant curses, because this is a matter of divine justice. But YHWH is sorry about Israel’s plight. How he wishes his people would worship and serve him and receive all the blessings he has promised to his own, but no, they don’t, and then they suffer.
As the familiar pattern of Judges plays out, after the people cry out, YHWH raises up a deliverer for his people. This time, the deliverer is a man named Jephthah. Like Abimelech, he is the son of a prostitute/concubine. But unlike Abimelech, he is someone whom God uses to deliver Israel from their current oppressor, the Ammonites. Although he is empowered by the Spirit of God, as the account of Jephthah unfolds, it is clear that his rise to power is devoid of a specific call by God. In fact, when Jephthah takes his tragic vow (which results in the sacrifice of his only daughter) we see yet again that the judges of Israel really are a mixed bag, and they can do nothing to save God’s people from their sin.