Don’t Idolize Your Leaders

Barak was a hero of early Israel, serving during the pre-monarch period when Deborah judged the nation (Judges 4–5). His great military feat was the complete rout of the Canaanite general, Sisera, and his army. However, in the process he learned the important distinction between imitating and idolizing the faith of a leader he respected.

Deborah sat praying on the roof of Barak’s house in the small lakeside village of Kedesh-Naphtali. The afternoon shadows from the southwest hills lengthened into evening over the quiet Chinnereth.

Deborah was there at Barak’s request — demand even. Through her, the Lord had called Barak to lead the attack on Sisera. But he had refused unless she agreed to come up with him from Ramah. She did, but his insistence had grieved her.

Young military runners had kept her informed on the battle’s progress. She already knew it was a rout. That morning from Mt. Tabor she had watched Barak’s two divisions sweep around the mountain’s north and south, crunching down on the flanks of Sisera’s proud chariots like a lion’s jaw. The Canaanite warriors had panicked and fled back west through the Jezreel valley, only to trap themselves against the rain-swollen Kishon River. The voracious Israelites leaped on them with a vengeance and consumed what was left of Sisera’s army.

En route back to Kedesh, Deborah had been told that Sisera had escaped. Barak was hot on his trail, chasing him Eastward. But she knew Barak wouldn’t catch him.

Dusk was falling when the last runner shouted up, “Victory is complete! Sisera is dead! Barak and his men are nearing town!” Deborah overflowed in thankful prayer as she went to meet Barak. Just outside the village she saw the small warrior contingent approaching with the slow pride of victorious fatigue.

“The Lord be praised, Deborah!” shouted Barak, from about fifty feet away. “He has done just as he said! Sisera fell into my hands and the Canaanite yoke on Israel is broken!” Victory cries erupted from soldiers and the gathering crowd. Women danced their joy with tambourines.

Deborah shouted back, “Yes, Barak! Praise the Glory of Israel who has kept his word and strengthened your hand and the hands of every valiant one who fought Sisera and his boastful host!” Another celebratory roar broke out followed by more dancing and singing.

As the throng reveled, Barak and Deborah pulled away for a full battle report. They sat near the fire outside Barak’s house and he savored a large helping of his wife’s roasted lamb.

“Who was she?” Deborah asked.

Barak knew immediately what she meant. Sisera’s army had fallen into his hands, but Sisera had not. He had fallen into a woman’s hands, just as Deborah had predicted (Judges 4:9).

“Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite,” he answered, still chewing. “Her tent isn’t even four miles from here.”

“Tell me what happened,” said Deborah.

“She was brilliant. Apparently, she spied Sisera trying to escape unnoticed and persuaded him to hide in her tent. When he learned she was a Kenite he assumed she was an ally. She hid him in the storage trough in her floor, covered him with a rug and gave him some milk. Weary and warm, he fell asleep like a baby. When she took me in, he was still laying there — with a tent peg through his brain! She had driven it through his temple with a hammer!” He shook his head and took a gulp of wine. Wiping his beard, he said, “That woman showed more cool courage than most of my warriors would have.”

“The Lord be praised for Jael’s courage. Her glory will be sung for many generations,” Deborah said. “But that glory should have been yours, Barak.”

Barak poured some more wine. Then cradling the cup in both hands, elbows on his knees, he stared into the fire. “I still don’t understand what evil I committed in wanting you to come with me. You’re a prophetess. Who wouldn’t want a prophet with him when going into battle?”

“Wanting a prophet with you wasn’t evil,” replied Deborah. “The evil was refusing to go to battle unless I went with you.” Barak’s brow furrowed. “Barak,” she said earnestly. He looked over at her. “It was the Lord who promised that he would give Sisera into your hand. My role as a prophet was just to speak the Lord’s word to you. The power lay in the promise, not the prophet. When you refused to go unless I accompanied you, it revealed that your confidence was in me, not God’s word. By trusting my presence for victory more than God’s promise, you gave the messenger more glory than the message. It made me an idol. That was the evil. God kept his promise to you because he’s always faithful. But because you took glory away from him and gave it to another, he took glory away from you and gave it to another.”

The writer of Hebrews says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

Imitating the faith of godly leaders is a biblical command. We obey and submit to them because they are faithful (Hebrews 13:17). They trust God, obey his word, and take great care to speak it to us accurately. We should want to be just like that.

But when, like Barak, we become more dependent on our leaders, or our association with them, than on God’s promises to us, we turn leaders into idols. We cease to imitate their faith and make them an object of our faith. This robs God of glory that only he deserves and gives it to another, something God won’t abide (Isaiah 48:11). But it also robs us of the only solid Rock that can support the house of our faith. Idolizing our leaders is building our faith-house on sand (Matthew 7:24–27). God is merciful to discipline us when we do this.

Barak was a man of faith (Hebrews 11:32). He did faithfully obey God’s word. Let us imitate him in that. But let us also learn from him not to place our faith in our godly leaders’ faith, but rather in the Object of their faith. Let us imitate, not idolize, their faith.