We have here a full account of the complete victory which the Israelites obtained over the Benjamites in the third engagement: the righteous cause was victorious at last, when the managers of it amended what had been amiss; for, when a good cause suffers, it is for want of good management. Observe then how the victory was obtained, and how it was pursued.
I. How the victory was obtained. Two things they had trusted too much to in the former engagements—the goodness of their cause and the superiority of their numbers. It was true that they had both right and strength on their side, which were great advantages; but they depended too much upon them, to the neglect of those duties to which now, this third time, when they see their error, they apply themselves.
1. They were previously so confident of the goodness of their cause that they thought it needless to address themselves to God for his presence and blessing. They took it for granted that God would bless them, nay, perhaps they concluded that he owed them his favour, and could not in justice withhold it, since it was in defence of virtue that they appeared and took up arms. But God having shown them that he was under no obligation to prosper their enterprise, that he neither needed them nor was tied to them, that they were more indebted to him for the honour of being ministers of his justice than he to them for the service, now they became humble petitioners for success. Before they only consulted God’s oracle, Who shall go up first? And, Shall we go up? But now they implored his favour, fasted and prayed, and offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings (Jdg. 20:26), to make an atonement for sin and an acknowledgment of their dependence upon God, and as an expression of their desire towards him. We cannot expect the presence of God with us, unless we thus seek it in the way he has appointed. And when they were in this frame, and thus sought the Lord, then he not only ordered them to go up against the Benjamites the third time, but gave them a promise of victory: Tomorrow I will deliver them into thy hand, Jdg. 20:28.
2. They were previously so confident of the greatness of their strength that they thought it needless to use any art, to lay any ambush, or form a stratagem, not doubting but to conquer purely by a strong hand; but now they saw it was requisite to use some policy, as if they had an enemy to deal with them that had been superior in number; accordingly, they set liers in wait (Jdg. 20:29), and gained their point, as their fathers did before Ai (Josh. 8:1-35), stratagems of that kind being most likely to take effect after a previous defeat, which has flushed the enemy, and made the pretended flight the less suspected. The management of this artifice is here very largely described. The assurance God had given them of success in this day’s action, instead of making them remiss and presumptuous, set all heads and hands on work for the effecting of what God had promised.
(1.) Observe the method they took. The body of the army faced the city of Gibeah, as they had done before, advancing towards the gates, Jdg. 20:30. The Benjamites, the body of whose army was now quartered at Gibeah, sallied out upon them, and charged them with great bravery. The besiegers gave back, retired with precipitation, as if their hearts failed them upon the sight of the Benjamites, which they were willing to believe, proudly imagining that by their former success they had made themselves very formidable. Some loss the Israelites sustained in this counterfeit flight, about thirty men being cut off in their rear, Jdg. 20:31, 39. But, when the Benjamites were all drawn out of the city, the ambush seized the city (Jdg. 20:37), gave a signal to the body of the army (Jdg. 20:38, 40), which immediately turned upon them (Jdg. 20:41), and, it should seem, another considerable party that was posted at Baal-tamar came upon them at the same time (Jdg. 20:33); so that the Benjamites were quite surrounded, which put them into the greatest consternation that could be. A sense of guilt now disheartened them, and the higher their hopes had been raised the more grievous was this confusion. At first the battle was sore (Jdg. 20:34), the Benjamites fought with fury; but, when they saw what a snare they were drawn into, they thought one pair of heels (as we say) was worth two pair of hands, and they made the best of their way towards the wilderness (Jdg. 20:42); but in vain: the battle overtook them, and, to complete their distress, those who came out of the cities of Israel, that waited to see the event of the battle, joined with their pursuers, and helped to cut them off. Every man’s hand was against them.
(2.) Observe in this story, [1.] That the Benjamites, in the beginning of the battle, were confident that the day was their own: They are smitten down before us, Jdg. 20:32, 39. Sometimes God suffers wicked men to be lifted up in successes and hopes, that their fall may be the sorer. See how short their joy is, and their triumphing but for a moment. Let not him that girdeth on the harness boast, except he has reason to boast in God. [2.] Evil was near them and they did not know it, Jdg. 20:34. But (Jdg. 20:41) they saw, when it was too late to prevent it, that evil had come upon them. What evils may at any time be near us we cannot tell, but the less they are feared the heavier they fall. Sinners will not be persuaded to see evil near them, but how dreadful will it be when it comes and there is no escaping! 1 Thess. 5:3. [3.] Though the men of Israel played their parts so well in this engagement, yet the victory is ascribed to God (Jdg. 20:35): The Lord smote Benjamin before Israel. The battle was his, and so was the success. [4.] They trode down the men of Benjamin with ease when God fought against them, Jdg. 20:43. It is an easy thing to trample upon those who have made God their enemy. See Mal. 4:3.
II. How the victory was prosecuted and improved in a military execution done upon these sinners against their own souls. 1. Gibeah itself, that nest of lewdness, was destroyed in the first place. The ambush that entered the city by surprise drew themselves along, that is, dispersed themselves into the several parts of it, which they might easily do, now that all the men of war had sallied out and very presumptuously left it defenceless; and they smote all they found, even women and children, with the sword (Jdg. 20:37), and set fire to the city, Jdg. 20:40. Sin brings ruin upon cities. 2. The army in the field was quite routed and cut off: 18,000 men of valour lay dead upon the spot, Jdg. 20:44. 3. Those that escaped from the field were pursued, and cut off in their flight, to the number of 7000, Jdg. 20:45. It is to no purpose to think of out-running divine vengeance. Evil pursues sinners, and it will overtake them. 4. Even those that tarried at home were involved in the ruin. They let their sword devour for ever, not considering that it would be bitterness in the latter end, as Abner pleads long after, when he was at the head of an army of Benjamites, probably with an eye to this very story, 2 Sam. 2:25, 26. They put to the sword all that breathed, and set fire to all the cities, Jdg. 20:48. So that of all the tribe of Benjamin, for aught that appears, there remained none alive but 600 men that took shelter in the rock Rimmon, and lay close there four months, Jdg. 20:47. Now, (1.) It is difficult to justify this severity as it was Israel’s act. The whole tribe of Benjamin was culpable; but must they therefore be treated as devoted Canaanites? That it was done in the heat of war, that this was the way of prosecuting victories which the sword of Israel had been accustomed to, that the Israelites were extremely exasperated against the Benjamites for the slaughter they had made among them in the two former engagements, will go but a little way to excuse the cruelty of this execution. It is true they had sworn that whosoever did not come up to Mizpeh should be put to death, Jdg. 21:5. But that, if it was a justifiable oath, yet extended only to the men of war; the rest were not expected to come. Yet, (2.) It is easy to justify the hand of God in it. Benjamin had sinner against him, and God had threatened that, if they forgot him, they should perish as the nations that were before them perished (Deut. 8:20), who were all in this manner cut off. (3.) It is easy likewise to improve it for warning against the beginnings of sin: they are like the letting forth of water, therefore leave it off before it be meddled with, for we know not what will be in the end thereof. The eternal ruin of souls will be worse, and more fearful, than all these desolations of a tribe. This affair of Gibeah is twice spoken of by the prophet Hosea as the beginning of the corruption of Israel and a pattern to all that followed (Hos. 9:9): They have deeply corrupted themselves as in the days of Gibeah; and (Hos. 10:9), Thou hast sinned from the days of Gibeah; and it is added that the battle in Gibeah against the children of iniquity did not (that is, did not at first) overtake them.