God delights in strong women. We in the church should, too.
Our celebration of strong women in the body of Christ should be heard loud and clear. What needs to be heard as well is a joyful embracing of what the Bible celebrates as a strong woman. There’s no biblical formula for a strong, godly woman. But as the Spirit opens our eyes, we can dig relentlessly into God’s revelation, to get a clearer and clearer view.
I’ve been doing some digging lately into the story of Deborah in Judges 4–5. This strong woman stands out: one of a few mentioned prophetesses, and the only mentioned female judge of Israel — arguably the godliest one.
I love the picture of Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, sitting at work under that palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim, “and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4–5). Here is a strong woman used by God to exercise strategic leadership among God’s people; this is beautiful and important for us to see. The more we see just how the Bible shows us Deborah’s strength, the better we see its beauty and importance. To this end, let’s make four observations about this story of a strong woman.
1. Deborah’s story lifts our eyes to God.
Deborah is part of a bigger story.
When we meet Deborah, we meet part of the seed of Abraham that God promised to grow and bless. The people of Israel have God’s word and are settled in the land he promised, on the way to becoming a great kingdom through which God will bless the nations of this fallen world. But in the book of Judges they disobey him again and again, growing from bad to worse.
Each time they turn from the Lord, he allows enemy nations to oppress them. But each time they cry out to him for help, he rescues them. Deborah takes part in one of these rescues. She did not know it, but all these rescues pointed to the one great rescue God would accomplish finally through that promised seed, his own Son.
Deborah was part of a people who were part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity, and she faithfully played her part. I start here in celebrating this strong woman, because human strength as Scripture shows it is only a derived strength. There is no strength but that given by the Creator God in whom is life and strength eternal. He is the only source. Out of a fallen world of sinners, he chooses a people to save and to use for his saving purposes. Deborah is first of all a part of that chosen people. Let’s not even begin to talk about strong women — or men — apart from this bigger story of what God is doing.
The story of Deborah isn’t mainly about Deborah. The primary and sovereign actor in this story is God. It’s a great exercise: read Judges 4–5, marking all the references to God. From the introduction (Judges 4:1–2) to the climax (Judges 4:14–15) to the conclusion (Judges 4:23–24), this story is about what God is doing.
When we celebrate the strength of Deborah, we celebrate first the all-powerful God in whose story Deborah takes part.
2. Deborah speaks God’s word.
Deborah not only comes in the flow of God’s word, but she herself speaks God’s word. Of course, that was what true prophets did: they spoke the word of the Lord as he gave it to them. And that’s what we see Deborah doing throughout this story. Calling Barak to battle against Sisera, she calls, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you?” (Judges 4:6). In commands (Judges 4:6, 14), judgments (Judges 4:9), and promises (Judges 4:7, 14), Deborah’s mouth overflows with God’s word.
When we celebrate the strength of Deborah, we celebrate a woman on whose tongue lay God’s word. Of course, in Deborah’s time, the written word was not yet complete, and God spoke at many times and in many ways by his prophets — whereas now, in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1–2). The Scriptures revealing that Son are complete. On the tongue of today’s strong women — or men — is the word of God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
3. Deborah obeys God’s word.
Deborah not only speaks God’s word; she obeys it. Along with her words is evident a heart of submission to God’s revealed plan — specifically God’s revealed leaders. God has commanded Barak to lead out Israel’s army as deliverer of Israel; Deborah herself has communicated that command.
She clearly respects and embraces Barak’s God-ordained role. Even when Barak is afraid to obey, Deborah does not belittle or replace him; rather, she helps him. She immediately agrees to go with him, as he asks. Now, she does give God’s judgment on Barak’s weakness: Sisera himself will die not by Barak’s hand, but by the hand of another strong woman, Jael. The two strong women bookend the narrative like pillars holding up the house.
It might not seem fair that, in the Hebrews 11 “hall of faith,” it’s fearful Barak who gets the callout in the roll of the faithful (Hebrews 11:32). I don’t think Deborah would have minded; in fact, this is what Deborah was after: to lift up Israel’s leaders — to encourage them and help them act like leaders.
4. Deborah sings God’s word.
We know this about Deborah not only from her interaction with Barak, but also from her song. Deborah speaks God’s word; she obeys it; and, finally, she sings it! As we move from the narrative of chapter 4 to the poetry of chapter 5, Deborah first praises God for Israel’s leaders who faithfully came out to battle:
“That the leaders took the lead in Israel,
that the people offered themselves willingly,
bless the Lord!” (Judges 5:2)
Deborah not only praises God for the men who did lead; in verses 16–17, she also names and reproaches the ones who did not. Verse 9 reveals her heart for God’s ordained leaders:
“My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
who offered themselves willingly among the people.
Bless the Lord.” (Judges 5:9)
Most basically, this Spirit-inspired poetry shows a heart turned toward the Lord God and his purposes. Using imagery that recalls the exodus, Deborah sings glory to God for his deliverance of his people, including the destruction of their enemies. She praises him for accomplishing those purposes through willing male leaders; through Jael, “most blessed of women”; and through herself, a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:4–7; 24–31). Deborah revels in the blessing of both women and men offering themselves willingly to the Lord, to do the distinct jobs he calls them to do.
When we celebrate the strength of Deborah, we celebrate a woman who speaks and obeys God’s word — and who sings it with all her heart! Through her song Deborah bears witness to the ways God uses men and women to serve him — and every kind of serving requires great strength. Read those verses Deborah sings about Jael: talk about expertise, not only with a workman’s mallet and a tent peg, but with an inspired poet’s power to craft words that pierce the heart.
The Encouragement of Deborah
Judges 4–5 remind me to look first to my all-powerful Creator and Redeemer, whose word ordains my days. I am living in his story. As a woman specifically, I am encouraged to see how God distinctly prepares, calls, and uses men and women. I pray to serve faithfully as a word-filled woman. I pray for my heart to go out to the men God calls as spiritual leaders of the church, according to the apostle Paul’s teaching. They are imperfect and sometimes weak, and so am I. Sometimes I am strong when they are weak.
May I bless God for his saving purposes in calling his people to serve our perfect Deliverer together — and may I be prepared to wage spiritual battle along with and in every way possible, helping the overseers chosen to lead the body of Christ.
Like Deborah, may more and more strong, godly women speak the word, obey it, and sing it with all our hearts, for the glory of Christ our Lord.