Here, I. The children of Israel consult the oracle of God for direction which of all the tribes should first attempt to clear their country of the Canaanites, and to animate and encourage the rest. It was after the death of Joshua. While he lived he directed them, and all the tribes were obedient to him, but when he died he left no successor in the same authority that he had; but the people must consult the breast-plate of judgment, and thence receive the word of command; for God himself, as he was their King, so he was the Lord of their hosts. The question they ask is, Who shall go up first? Jdg. 1:1. By this time, we may suppose, they were so multiplied that the places they were in possession of began to be too strait for them, and they must thrust out the enemy to make room; now they enquire who should first take up arms. Whether each tribe was ambitious of being first, and so strove for the honour of it, or whether each was afraid of being first, and so strove to decline it, does not appear; but by common consent the matter was referred to God himself, who is the fittest both to dispose of honours and to cut out work.
II. God appointed that Judah should go up first, and promised him success (Jdg. 1:2): “I have delivered the land into his hand, to be possessed, and therefore will deliver the enemy into his hand, that keeps him out of possession, to be destroyed.” And why must Judah be first in this undertaking? 1. Judah was the most numerous and powerful tribe, and therefore let Judah venture first. Note, God appoints service according to the strength he has given. Those that are most able, from them most work is expected. 2. Judah was first in dignity, and therefore must be first in duty. He it is whom his brethren must praise, and therefore he it is who must lead in perilous services. Let the burden of honour and the burden of work go together. 3. Judah was first served; the lot came up for Judah first, and therefore Judah must first fight. 4. Judah was the tribe out of which our Lord was to spring: so that in Judah, Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, went before them. Christ engaged the powers of darkness first, and foiled them, which animates us for our conflicts; and it is in him that we are more than conquerors. Observe, The service and the success are put together: “Judah shall go up; let him do his part, and then he shall find that I have delivered the land into his hand.” His service will not avail unless God give the success; but God will not give the success unless he vigorously apply himself to the service.
III. Judah hereupon prepares to go up, but courts his brother and neighbour the tribe of Simeon (the lot of which tribe fell within that of Judah and was assigned out of it) to join forces with him, Jdg. 1:3. Observe here, 1. That the strongest should not despise but desire the assistance even of those that are weaker. Judah was the most considerable of all the tribes, and Simeon the least considerable, and yet Judah begs Simeon’s friendship, and prays an aid from him; the head cannot say to the foot, I have no need of thee, for we are members one of another. 2. Those that crave assistance must be ready to give assistance: Come with me into my lot, and then I will go with thee into thine. It becomes Israelites to help one another against Canaanites; and all Christians, even those of different tribes, should strengthen one another’s hands against the common interests of Satan’s kingdom. Those who thus help one another in love have reason to hope that God will graciously help them both.
IV. The confederate forces of Judah and Simeon take the field: Judah went up (Jdg. 1:4), and Simeon with him, Jdg. 1:3. Caleb, it is probable, was commander-in-chief of this expedition; for who so fit as he who had both an old man’s head and a young man’s hand, the experience of age and the vigour of youth? Josh. 14:10, 11. It should seem too, by what follows (Jdg. 1:10, 11), that he was not yet in possession of his own allotment. It was happy for them that they had such a general as, according to his name, was all heart. Some think that the Canaanites had got together into a body, a formidable body, when Israel consulted who should go and fight against them, and that they then began to stir when they heard of the death of Joshua, whose name had been so dreadful to them; but, if so, it proved they did but meddle to their own hurt.
V. God gave them great success. Whether they invaded the enemy, or the enemy first gave them the alarm, the Lord delivered them into their hand, Jdg. 1:4. Though the army of Judah was strong and bold, yet the victory is attributed to God: he delivered the Canaanites into their hand; having given them authority, he here gives them ability to destroy them—put it in their power, and so tried their obedience to his command, which was utterly to cut them off. Bishop Patrick observes upon this that we meet not with such religious expressions in the heathen writers, concerning the success of their arms, as we have here and elsewhere in this sacred history. I wish such pious acknowledgments of the divine providence had not grown into disuse at this time with many that are called Christians. Now, 1. We are told how the army of the Canaanites was routed in the field, in or near Bezek, the place where they drew up, which afterwards Saul made the place of a general rendezvous (1 Sam. 11:8); they slew 10,000 men, which blow, if followed, could not but be a very great weakening to those that were already brought so very low. 2. How their king was taken and mortified. His name was Adoni-bezek, which signifies, lord of Bezek. There have been those that called their lands by their own names (Ps. 49:11), but here was one (and there has been many another) that called himself by his land’s name. He was taken prisoner after the battle, and we are here told how they used him; they cut off his thumbs, to disfit him for fighting, and his great toes, that he might not be able to run away, Jdg. 1:6. It had been barbarous thus to triumph over a man in misery, and that lay at their mercy, but that he was a devoted Canaanite, and one that had in like manner abused others, which probably they had heard of. Josephus says, “They cut off his hands and his feet,” probably supposing those more likely to be mortal wounds than only the cutting off of his thumbs and his great toes. But this indignity which they did him extorted from him an acknowledgment of the righteousness of God, Jdg. 1:7. Here observe, (1.) What a great man this Adoni-bezek had been, how great in the field, where armies fled before him, how great at home, where kings were set with the dogs of his flock; and yet now himself a prisoner, and reduced to the extremity of meanness and disgrace. See how changeable this world is, and how slippery its high places are. Let not the highest be proud, nor the strongest secure, for they know not how low they may be brought before they die. (2.) What desolations he had made among his neighbours: he had wholly subdued seventy kings, to such a degree as to have them his prisoners; he that was the chief person in a city was then called a king, and the greatness of their title did but aggravate their disgrace, and fired the pride of him that insulted over them. We cannot suppose that Adoni-bezek had seventy of these petty princes at once his slaves; but first and last, in the course of his reign, he had thus deposed and abused so many, who perhaps were many of them kings of the same cities that successively opposed him, and whom he thus treated to please his own imperious barbarous fancy, and for a terror to others. It seems the Canaanites had been wasted by civil wars, and those bloody ones, among themselves, which would very much facilitate the conquest of them by Israel. “Judah,” says Dr. Lightfoot, “in conquering Adoni-bezek, did, in effect, conquer seventy kings.” (3.) How justly he was treated as he had treated others. Thus the righteous God sometimes, in his providence, makes the punishment to answer the sin, and observes an equality in his judgments; the spoiler shall be spoiled, and the treacherous dealer dealt treacherously with, Isa. 33:1. And those that showed no mercy shall have no mercy shown them, Jas. 2:13. See Rev. 13:10; 18:6. (4.) How honestly he owned the righteousness of God herein: As I have done, so God has requited me. See the power of conscience, when God by his judgments awakens it, how it brings sin to remembrance, and subscribes to the justice of God. He that in his pride had set God at defiance now yields to him, and reflects with as much regret upon the kings under his table as ever he had looked upon them with pleasure when he had them there. He seems to own that he was better dealt with than he had dealt with his prisoners; for though the Israelites maimed him (according to the law of retaliation, an eye for an eye, so a thumb for a thumb), yet they did not put him under the table to be fed with the crumbs there, because, though the other might well be looked upon as an act of justice, this would have savoured more of pride and haughtiness than did become an Israelite.
VI. Particular notice is taken of the conquest of Jerusalem, Jdg. 1:8. Our translators judge it spoken of here as done formerly in Joshua’s time, and only repeated on occasion of Adoni-bezek’s dying there, and therefore read it, “they had fought against Jerusalem,” and put this verse in a parenthesis; but the original speaks of it as a thing now done, and this seems most probable because it is said to be done by the children of Judah in particular, not by all Israel in general, whom Joshua commanded. Joshua indeed conquered and slew Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem (Josh. 10:1-43), but we read not there of his taking the city; probably, while he was pursing his conquests elsewhere, this Adoni-bezek, a neighbouring prince, got possession of it, whom Israel having conquered in the field, the city fell into their hands, and they slew the inhabitants, except those who retreated into the castle and held out there till David’s time, and they set the city on fire, in token of their detestation of the idolatry wherewith it had been deeply infected, yet probably not so utterly as to consume it, but to leave convenient habitations for as many as they had to put into the possession of it.