Who was Shamgar the Judge?
As we read through Judges we came across a number of famous individuals with well-known stories such as Samson and Gideon. But right near the beginning of the book, which is overall descriptive of “the dark ages” of early Israelite history, we find this passing reference:
After him [Ehud] was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel. (Judges 3:31 ESV)
Who on earth was Shamgar? Why was he remembered? Why does he receive such sparse attention?
Let’s begin with what we know followed by what he might teach us.
Shamgar’s name in Hebrew likely means “sword.” He was the son of a man (or perhaps of a family group) named Anath meaning “answer” [i.e. an answer to prayer]. Taken together these provide a fitting name that links to his role, as a deliverer and judge (there are also possible overtones in his name to the Canaanite culture, which may indicate how Canaanized the Israelites had become).
He is remembered for killing 600 Philistines. The Philistines consisted of a nation along the Mediterranean coast who had arrived in Canaan about the same time as Israel and represented a continual military threat until they were subdued by King David. In an impressive feat Shamgar was enabled by the LORD to strike down 600 Philistines using only a primitive weapon known as an oxgoad.
An oxgoad, or simply a goad, is used with oxen as a prodding tool. Historic examples include those pointed with metal (or not) and also variants that had an additional point which curved backwards developed to maximize the drivers ability to poke the oxen.
Using only this everyday agricultural tool as a weapon, in one battle or perhaps as a tally of all of his encounters, he struck down 600 Philistines and thus provided a measure of deliverance for Israel (though the nature and extent of that deliverance is not presented).
The only other verse that adds information to this story comes in the song of Deborah who tells us that:
In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned, and travellers kept to the byways. (Judges 5:6 ESV)
Life as Israel had known it, a life of peace and prosperity under the rule of and faithfulness to the LORD, had ceased. In its place had come national insecurity and distress.
What then are we meant to take away from these two verses about Shamgar? There are several possibilities but let me elaborate on just one of them.[i] Shamgar obviously did something very great in Israel to the extent that he was remembered as he was. The modest account we are left with struck me as a great reminder that our motivation to serve the LORD should not be to receive a lengthy entry into the annals of the faith but rather to please the LORD, irregardless of whether such service is acknowledged publically or not.
Jesus said as much in Matthew 6:5-6 (ESV):
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And similarly a few verses on in Matthew 6:16-18 (ESV) He said again:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Believers such as these are truly “unknown, and yet well known…poor, yet making many rich (1 Cor 6:9).
The Lord uses many means, some secret and some public, to bring about his salvation. To some He affords the honour of their deeds being publically acknowledged, while to others He grants the even greater blessing of acts of service being known only to Him in secret.
The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,
[i] Some others might include that Shamgar used what was available to him to serve the LORD and this was sufficient. It also demonstrates how the LORD in His providence uses ordinary people (a farmer like Shamgar) as means to bring about extraordinary works of salvation.