What characterises declension?
We have seen signs of declension in the verses which we have been considering, while the state of the people was still good. Now we shall see in what declension, properly speaking, consists. It is not the same as ruin, which is declension fully matured, such as we find in Judges 2. Both reappear in the history of the Church, and in proof of this we have but to read the epistles to the seven churches. (Rev. 2, 3) Declension in Ephesus leaving her first love, - ruin in Laodicea, whom the Lord is obliged to spew out of His mouth.
What, then, is declension? In a word, we may say, worldliness. The heart, principles and walk are in unison with the world. This is invariably how declension begins, and we may well understand the "Take good heed to yourselves" in Joshua 23: 11. How easily this snare might be avoided, if the hearts of God's children were upright before Him. But instead of dispossessing the Canaanites, Israel is afraid of them, tolerates them, and dwells with them. So, also, the Church, looked at as a whole, is allied with the world. Later on we shall see the disastrous results of this alliance. Suffice it for the present that God's Word establishes the fact, that Israel did not keep separate from the Canaanitish nations.
Another principle comes out in this passage: declension is gradual. Step by step Israel's course is downward, until the solemn moment when the angel of the Lord definitively quits Gilgal for Bochim. This is true both of the Church (Rev. 2, 3), and the individual. A Christian who has walked in the power of the Holy Spirit, if he allows the world even a little room in his heart, instead of treating it as an enemy, will by degrees get under its thraldom, and will perhaps close his career in the sore humiliation of a defeat.
Judges 19‑21 of our book are a narrative of events which historically precede Judges 1. We shall consider them more particularly by‑and‑bye, but I mention it here to bring out a third principle apparently contradictory to the second - namely, that, from the first, before God had delivered them over to their enemies, the people, as to their moral state, were totally lost. It was the same with the Church. Scarcely had the last apostle passed off the scene, when a tremendous gap was visible between the principles of the primitive church and those of the times immediately following. Christians suddenly lost even the elementary views of salvation by grace, the work of the cross, justification by faith.*
*See, on this subject, a valuable tract. "Christianity, not Christendom," by J. N. D. (To be found in his Collected Writings, vol. 18)
These two principles, gradual declension and sudden downfall, are of immense practical importance for us, setting us on our guard against the least worldly tendency, on the one hand; and, on the other, teaching us not to put any confidence in the flesh, but to depend solely on God and His grace.
Let us now consider in detail, the portion of scripture before us. "And Judah went with Simeon, his brother, and they slew the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. And the name of the city was called Hormah," which signifies "utter destruction." This is a remarkable fact, and recalls the book of Joshua. Judah refused all link with the Canaanite. The strong cities of the Philistines were conquered - "and the Lord was with Judah." But why did he only possess the mountain, and not drive out the inhabitants of the valley? Alas! he feared their "chariots of iron."
Mistrusting, to all appearance, his own strength, Judah had, nevertheless, allied himself with Simeon, and this was, as we have seen, in measure to mistrust God. To tremble before the power of the world is a consequence of not confiding in the power of God. Had they not on a former occasion of victory burned Jabin's chariots with fire? (Joshua 11: 4‑9) Had not God promised the house of Joseph that "they should drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots and though they be strong"? (Joshua 17: 17, 18) What then were iron chariots to Jehovah? When our confidence in Him and in His promises is shaken, we say like the spies sent by Moses to view the land: "And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak... and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." (Numbers 13: 33)
How different to Caleb! (v. 20) He expelled the enemy, even the three sons of Anak, from his inheritance. In days of declension, individual faith can act, where collectively it is impossible. In v. 21, "the children of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem." Judah, in days of prosperity (v. 8), had smitten this city with the edge of the sword, and set it on fire. But the forces of the vanquished enemy are skilful in reforming, and never consider themselves beaten. Israel's low estate gave them a favourable opportunity, and so "the Jebusites dwell with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem unto this day."
The history of the house of Joseph (v. 22‑26) recalls that of Rahab in Joshua 2, with this main difference, the work of faith is absent. The act of the man of Luz, delivering up his city to the children of Israel, is that of a traitor, not that of a believer. Joseph decoys him by a promise of his life, and instead of, like Rahab, associating himself with God's people after his deliverance, he returns to the world and rebuilds in the country of the Hittites, the very Luz which Jehovah had destroyed.
Many, alas! were the cities which Manasseh did not dispossess (v. 27, 28). Observe the word:"The Canaanites would dwell in that land." The world has more power over a Christian in a low state than the Word and promises of God. It is true that "when Israel was strong, they put the Canaanites to tribute;" but that was ruling, not driving out. Christendom, grown rich and powerful, did the same with regard to paganism. It may have been permitted by God in His providential ways, that it should be so, but it was not faith.
Ephraim and Zebulon allowed the Canaanites to dwell among them (v. 29, 30). Henceforth, the world formed part of the people of God. Asher and Naphthali (v. 31‑33) went a step farther: they dwelt among the Canaanites. Israel is engulfed by them.
One more trait, and the picture is complete. "And the Amorites forced the children of Dan into the mountain; for they would not suffer them to come down to the valley" (v. 34). The world, at length, obtains what is sought, and spoils the children of God of their inheritance. Satan's aim always is to rob us of those things which constitute our joy and strength; and he succeeds only too well.
Do not let us forget how gradual declension is.
Ere long, we shall see poor Israel abandoning the God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, bowing down to false gods, and, as a consequence of their idolatry, oppressed and plundered by their enemies.
Beloved brethren, we all belong to a period of declension. It is too late for the Church, collectively, to return; but let us, at least, individually, avoid this slippery path. Let us watch against the world, and mistrust even its fairest baits, seeking, in these closing days, to be amongst the faithful ones to whom the Lord can say, "I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." (Rev. 3: 20) God grant that holy separation from the world, and increasing communion with the Lord, may characterize us until the close of our course.