A few years ago I was having a discussion with a certain fellow. He said “Your own Bible casts doubt on the idea that God is all powerful...” And then he read Judges 1:19.
And the LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron. (Judges 1:19)
It's amazing to me how God prepares us for the situations we find ourselves in. A few months earlier this very passage had caught my attention during my devotional reading, and I already knew exactly how to answer this fellow. Superficially, there is a simple answer. The “he” does not refer to God, but to Judah. That is to say, “And the LORD was with Judah, and he [Judah] took possession of the hill country, but he [Judah] could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain...” Chariots of iron are not a problem for God, who drowned all of Pharaoh's army when He parted the Red Sea, chariots and all. Or we could even keep within the very same book, turning to Judges chapter 4...
Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron... And the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword... not a man was left. (Judges 4:13-16)
But this just begs the next question. Why, if God was with Judah, did He not give them victory over the iron chariots?
Whenever a passage of Scripture puzzles us, the answer is usually found in the context of the passage. If you continue to read the remainder of Judges chapter 1, we find that the rest of the chapter lists many failings by all of the various tribes of Israel to overcome their enemies. This document of failures leads us right up to chapter 2...
And he [God] said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars. But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (Judges 2:1-3)
God is speaking of a covenant that the people had made with the inhabitants of the land. This, I believe, would be referring to the covenant made in Joshua chapter 9, in which Joshua makes a covenant with the Gibeonites, swearing not to make war with them. Now they were deceived into making this covenant, but this was no excuse. After all, the Devil will deceive us and cause us to sin, but the Bible admonishes us to therefore be all the more diligent and careful. It does not excuse us.
Now if we turn to the book of Numbers, we read this...
But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them. (Numbers 33:55-56)
We see here the passage of Scripture to which God was surely alluding to when He said in Judges 2:3 that “they shall become thorns in your sides”. Why would God do this? I don't think it's a matter of coincidence that the Apostle Paul uses the term “thorn in the flesh” in the following passage...
So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
We don't know the exact nature of Paul's “thorn in the flesh”, but in the context of the passage, Paul says “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
So I think we're beginning to see why God allowed Israel to fail somewhat in their conquest. The whole history of Israel is like a metaphor of the Christian life. I see the enemies of Israel as the various trials and temptations we face. They tempted Israel time and again to commit idolatry; their gods were a snare to Israel. But we are in the same situation. The temptations of the world are all around us; God does not hide us from them. Sex and drugs and money and all manner of other things that can corrupt us. For Paul, he sensed a weakness of his own that he was becoming proud of the revelations that God had given him. He was one of the most privileged people who has ever lived. But through some trial that he went through he was reminded of God's grace, and that he had nothing to boast of.
What does Paul mean when he says “When I am weak, then I am strong”? I think he means this... that when we are weak, people can see that the strength we do have to endure is not our own but from Christ. We are “strong” in our witnessing and our ministry. Unfortunately, Israel would often give in to those temptations to worship foreign gods. But imagine how it could have been if Israel would have resisted the temptation to worship those idols, (whose worship involved such tempting practices as orgies and the like). What if, in spite of such temptations, they had stood by the God of all Creation, Yahweh? Imagine the impact that would have had on those nations? I think that God allowed those nations to survive the conquest of Israel because God had mercy on them, and so that Israel might have had an opportunity to witness to them and to demonstrate the power of God. Again, this can be seen as a metaphor for our own lives. How often do we find opportunity to demonstrate the power of God in our own struggles?
He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:2-3)