The Expository Files.

Major Lessons From the "Minor Judges"

Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon

Judges 3:31; 10:1-5; 12:8-15


This lesson focuses on six men--six buried men. They are all buried in graves and tombs throughout the land of Israel. They are also "buried" in the Old Testament, specifically in the book of Judges. Sadly, these six men have been consigned to obscurity. Yet they are real men of Hebrew history, men chosen by God in His unfolding scheme of redemption. Of course, I speak of the "minor judges" Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.

It is true that there is little preserved of them in Scripture. When compared to such giants as Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson, they do at first glance appear to be insignificant. Yet I am persuaded that we can learn some "major lessons" from these "minor judges." (see note 1)

1. No one is exempt from serving God.

Consider Shamgar. He battled the Philistines with an ox goad. It is very likely that he was just a poor farmer (i.e., a peasant).

Consider Jair. It is evident that he was a man of great wealth and authority. Jair had 30 sons. Each son had an "ass colt" or "donkey" (a sign of wealth and status back then) and each son was assigned his own city. (How would you like to have your own city? How would you like to be related to the one who gave you that city?) Still, the author of Judges notes that these 30 cities were known as "Havoth-jair" (literally, "The Towns of Jair") "unto this day." It is one thing to have a town named after you. It is quite another thing for a whole group of towns to be named after you...and for the name to "stick"!

Consider Ibzan. He had 60 children (30 sons and 30 daughters)! Apparently, he was wealthy enough to arrange marriages from abroad for his sons and to send his daughters abroad for their marriages. (Whether this was in or out of Israel is unknown.) What is certain is that he, like Jair, was rich and influential.

Consider Abdon. His large family (40 sons and 30 grandsons) implies that he was a man of great wealth and status. His 70 descendants each had an ass colt or donkey (cf. Jair). Since this was an expensive mode of transportation back then, the closest equivalent for today would be for a modern-day Grandfather seeing to it that all his sons and grandsons received a brand-new car! My point is this: Everyone can (and must) serve God. No one is exempt. Whether rich or poor, peasant farmer or wealthy nobleman, these men rendered service that was acceptable and blessed by God. They understood that their talents and possessions ultimately belonged to the Lord and were to be used for Him, not self-aggrandizement. (cf. Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11,17,22-25)

2. Serve God even if you are a "nobody."

In his book Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish historian, Josephus, says of Ibzan: "He did nothing in the seven years of his administration that was worth recording, or deserved a memorial." Of Elon, Josephus says: "Neither did anything remarkable." Of Abdon, he writes: "He is only recorded to have been happy in his children; for the public affairs were then so peaceable, and in such security, that neither did he perform any glorious action...he died an old man, and obtained a magnificent burial."

Rather than looking to ourselves and asking to be excused (cf. Lk. 14:18ff), we need to look to God and get to work. "But I'm just a nobody..." sounds a lot like the feeble excuse of Moses (cf. Exod. 3:11). God didn't accept that excuse then and He will not accept it today. (see note 2)

This excuse "But I'm just a nobody..." could have been used by the any one of the minor judges--even the apostle Paul himself (cf. 1 Cor. 15:9-10; Eph. 3:8; 2 Cor. 12:11)--but they all determined to serve God in their generation. (see note 3)

3. Serve God with what you have.

Shamgar was probably a contemporary of Jael and is mentioned in Deborah's victory song (Jgs. 5:6). The fact that she mentions him indicates that he was held in high esteem in the land. His war instrument was an ox goad. This was a farming tool! Generally, it was about eight feet long with a sharp metal spike at one end to prod animals to work. Shamgar used this humble agricultural implement in battle against Philistia. (see note 4)

As we consider Shamgar and his humble weapon, let us allow the lesson of his ox-goad to "prod" us to acknowledge the fact that there is room in God's kingdom for the "small things" that we can do (Lk. 16:10; cf. Matt. 25:21). Sometimes, we may feel that unless we hear the blowing of trumpet fanfares and the cheering of crowds, then we are unworthy to even get started. Yet, at the end of time, when every account is rendered, we may very well find that the greatest deeds were done quietly and unassumingly, far distant from the limelight (cf. the lesson of the widow's two mites in Lk. 21:1-4). Moses' rod (Exod. 4:1-5) was a simple shepherd's tool, but what great things God accomplished through it! "What is that in thine hand?"

"It isn't what you'd do tomorrow
If a million should be your lot;
But what you're doing now
With the dollar and quarter you've got!"

4. Service to God must be courageous and voluntary.

Tola, we are told, was of the tribe of Issachar. He "arose" to defend (literally, "save") Israel. He was a volunteer who offered his leadership talents in willing service. It appears that Tola did not wait to be sought out by his fellow Israelites. Neither did he wait for them to throng around him and beg him to do what was necessary. Tola saw the need; he arose; he saved Israel. What a champion!

Shamgar faced 600 armed pagan soldiers with a lowly farm tool. His bravery and courage are obvious.

We need more people like Tola and Shamgar. We need more who will ARISE and FIGHT...voluntarily (cf. Jude 3). Remember, there are no draftees in the church (Psa. 110:3, NASV; see footnote). From Pentecost till the return of Christ, people continue to "volunteer freely" and present themselves as free-will offerings before God (Rom. 12:1-2). Is your service forced and begrudged? Or is it what it ought to be: voluntary?

It is not always popular to stand against ungodliness. In fact, it is frequently very tempting to "go with the flow" and look for the easy way out. However, "The easy way is rarely the right way." We must be constant and true in our service to God and refuse to waver in our convictions (cf. 2 Tim. 1:7-8a; 1 Cor. 16:13). Is your service timid and hesitant? Or is it what it ought to be: courageous?

If your spiritual service to God is truly voluntary and courageous, then you are imitating the examples of the minor judges!

5. Even "ordinary" men can be heroes.

It is interesting to note what did not occur during the respective administrations of the minor judges. There were no great invasions or mass oppression from infidelic forces. Neither were there any civil wars brewing or igniting. The land was at peace. Tola judged in peace for 23 years; Jair, 22; Elon, 10; Abdon, 8; Ibzan, 7. (The length of Shamgar's judgeship is unknown--although Josephus speculates that he died during his first year as judge).

A "hero" is "a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities." How can these six men be considered "heroes," you ask? Any time a man performs regular, routine, even ordinary service unto God--voluntarily and without complaint--such a man should be admired and praised! These six men kept the peace and kept the faith in their time. They exerted a positive influence on those around them. Is there nothing noble about that? Is there nothing admirable--even heroic--in stemming the tide of sin and apostas

y in one's own time? Is there nothing honorable in being a part of the very oracles of God? (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17)

Read 1 Cor. 15:58 and Gal. 6:9, then consider this: Is it possible that the taproot of much of our discouragement lies in the fact that we feel our service in the Lord's vineyard is regular, routine, and ordinary?


At least five major lessons can be learned at the feet of these six "minor glamorous exploits of the "Major Judges," but Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon are preserved in Scripture for a reason. These six ordinary, obscure men are like Abel in that they being dead, "yet speak" (cf. Heb. 11:4). They "tell" us that it is not necessary that our service be recognized and awarded by men; if God takes note and is pleased, it is enough! The world may look upon our lives and snort in disgust--using the phraseology of Josephus: he did "nothing remarkable"; she did "nothing worthy of memorial" --but we do not pant after worldly fame and acclaim. (Gal. 1:10) We live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4) and long to hear His thrilling invitation: "Come, inherit My Celestial City." (cf. Matt. 25:34; Heb. 11:16)

"He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."

End Notes

This article was "inspired" by John L. Kachelman, Jr. in his fine little book Studies in Judges: "The Love and Discipline of God", pp. 129-138 (Quality Publications: Abilene, Texas; 1985). Although I admit to "stealing" the title of Chapter XII in his book, the bulk of the above exegesis is my own and many points only suggested by him I took the liberty of developing further. If the reader is interested in a homiletical/devotional approach to the book of Judges, I say two words: get Kachelman. His comments on Samson alone are worth the price of the book.
It has been said that the life of Moses can be divided into three parts:
Moses thought he was really somebody.
Moses learned that he was really nobody.
Moses learned what God can do with a nobody.
If these six men really were just a bunch of nobodies, then God would have excluded them from the Bible and it would be 14 verses shorter than it is.

The 600 Philistines that Shamgar slew may refer to either a single battle engagement or the total number slain throughout his judgeship.

By Craig Meyer
From Expository Files 4.5; May 1997