The origin and consequences of declension
Israel's declension was characterized by the fact that they had not remained in separation from the world, and this in itself denoted that they no longer had strength to drive out the enemy. Their lack of power was due to what we have just read. "And the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim." (Judges 2: 1) The book of Joshua, the record of Israel's victories, was characterized by Gilgal, the blessed spot wherein lay the secret of their strength. It was the place of circumcision, that is to say, typically, of the putting off of the flesh - "In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ." (Col. 2: 11) At the cross of Christ, in His death, the flesh was absolutely condemned and made an end of for the believer. At Gilgal, Jehovah had rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off the people.
Delivered (in type) from the dominion of the flesh which was connected with the world, i.e., Egypt, they now belonged only to God. The great fact of circumcision at Gilgal, the cutting off of the flesh, is a Christian responsibility. But continual returning to Gilgal was a necessity. There must be for the believer the constant realization before God, what the cross of Christ teaches, that "the flesh profiteth nothing." True self‑judgment must be maintained if we would know wherein lies the secret of spiritual power by which we mortify our members which are upon the earth. (Col. 3: 5) We may learn this from the victories in the book of Joshua. The Israelites always returned to Gilgal, except in one case (Joshua 7: 2) where they were defeated.
But Gilgal had been neglected, nay, even forgotten since the days of Joshua. It is thus that hearts become worldly through the absence of daily self‑judgment. The angel of Jehovah, the representative of Divine power in the midst of the people, had remained there alone, so to speak with nothing to do, waiting for Israel to return to him; he had waited long, Israel did not return. There was nothing for it, but that the angel should quit this blessed spot and go up to Bochim, the place of tears. Those days of strength and joy, when Jericho fell at the sound of God's trumpet, were over; the days, too, of Gibeon and Hazor were for ever gone. Israel could not recover the blessings dependent on Gilgal; Jehovah's power was no longer at the disposal of the people, looked at as a whole. Those days were past, when Israel went up willingly to Gilgal, judging, in type, the flesh; so that, sin not being there, they might conquer. Achor, too, was past with its lesson of humiliation and blessing, when the people judged their sin to put it away and were restored. At Bochim Israel wept, obliged to bear their chastisement and its irremediable consequences; present restoration was not possible; God does not re‑establish what man has ruined. The church has trodden the same path. Its ruin as a testimony and looked at on the side of human responsibility will be continuous to the end of its history. It has become unfaithful, till at last it has become established in the midst of the world, mixed up with iniquity of every kind which goes on to the close. God compares it to a great house with vessels to honour and dishonour. (2 Tim. 2) And yet the moment will come, when the history of man's responsibility being over, the Lord will present to Himself His church, glorious, having neither spot, nor wrinkle, nor any such thing. (Eph. 5) At that time it shall be said of her, as of Jacob, not "what hath man wrought," but "what hath God wrought!" (Numbers 23: 23)
It was not a sense of humiliation which filled the hearts of the poor people at Bochim: they were there, shedding tears at the sentence of judgment, and seeing no issue, for there was none. In the course of the book, we meet with times of partial deliverance, and even a beginning of real humiliation (Judges 10: 15, 16). But Israel's restoration is reserved for a future day. There is a sort of foretaste of it under Samuel, type of Christ, the true Judge and Prophet. In the scene at Mizpeh (1 Sam. 7), we have a picture of the day when Israel humbled, will be restored to their place of blessing as the people of God. Samuel convenes the people at Mizpeh, which is not merely the place of tears, but of humiliation. It was there that "they drew water and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day, and said there, 'we have sinned against the Lord.'" It was there that they put away their strange gods, and it was the dawn of an era of blessing which shone in all its splendour under the reigns of David and Solomon.
Bochim characterizes the book of Judges, as Gilgal does that of Joshua. Likewise the place of tears characterizes the present period of the church's history. It is no longer a question of retracing the pathway; the edifice is in ruins: to replaster it, would be but to adorn its decay, which would be worse than the ruin itself.
The angel of the Lord has come up from Gilgal to Bochim, and forfeited strength cannot be recovered. The Lord abhors pretension to power in a day such as the present. The display of human, fleshly power which we see on all sides, is utterly different to the power of the Spirit. Those who talk loudly about the power of God being with them, savour somewhat of the crowds who followed Simon Magus, saying: "This man is the great power of God" (Acts 8: 10); and of Laodicea, who says, "I am rich," not knowing that she is "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. 3: 17). However, we must never forget that if the church as a corporate witness has failed, God has preserved a testimony to Christ in the midst of the ruin, and those who seek to maintain it, acknowledge and weep over their common failure in the presence of God.
We find something similar in Ezek. 9: 4. The men of Jerusalem who sigh and cry are marked on their foreheads by the angel of the Lord; they are a humbled people, as in Mal. 3: 13‑18. There are two classes in this chapter; those who say: "What profit is it that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of Hosts?" (v. 14), and the faithful ones, a feeble and afflicted remnant who speak one to another, acknowledging the ruin, but waiting for the Messiah who alone can give them deliverance. These latter do not say: "What profit is it?" Their humbling is for their profit, turning their eyes to Him who "raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes." (1 Sam. 2: 8)
God grant that this may also be our attitude, and that we may not be indifferent to the state of the church of God in this world, but rather weep at having contributed towards it. Let us, like Philadelphia, be content to have a little strength, and we shall hear the Lord say for our consolation: I have the key of David, power is mine, fear not, I place it entirely at your disposal.
In verses 1‑3, the angel of the Lord speaks to the people. Had God broken His covenant? Had He not accomplished all that His mouth had spoken? It was Israel who had broken the covenant. "Why have ye done this?" How this question reaches and probes the conscience. Why? Because I preferred the world and its lusts to the power of the Spirit of God, idols to the ineffable favour of Jehovah's countenance. What then was the natural heart of this people? What is ours? Israel weeps and sacrifices (v. 5). How touching the grace which provides for worship in the midst of the ruin. The place of tears is one of sacrifice, and God accepts the offerings made at Bochim.