In this story, the words of God, "'Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress'" (v. 14) must have rung with horror in the ears of the hearers. The Israelites just cried out for mercy and they received judgment. To a someone like myself who still faces sin daily, it is this sober phrase that tells me that God can do whatever He pleases and is in no way obligated to do what I tell Him to do.
But, what's the end of this story? We read one interpretation, but here's another one - one with which I'm more apt to agree (although the other interpretation is entirely feasible).
The Israelites response to God's words are the following, "'We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day'" (v. 15). The following verse goes on to say, "So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.
While it is entirely possible that their repentance was fake, and the writer of the book of Judges was merely explaining external religious conformity, I tend to think that's not the case. These words are too specific in detailing how the people of Israel responded. It seems like there really was repentance. They served the Lord and got rid of the foreign gods. And, the passage says that God became impatient over the Israelites misery. What I take that to mean is that God had pity on the people of Israel in their state of misery. He desired to deliver them.
The applications from this passage that I see are the following:
- God can do whatever He pleases. In judgment, He is glorified. In extending forgiveness, He is glorified. Yet, in this passage, "mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13).
- People who cry out to God for forgiveness don't demand forgiveness. The people of Israel knew that the sobering statement from God was completely justified. Yet, they entrusted themselves to Him and sought after His mercy - even though that mercy was not verbally offered.
- Repentance leads to change. The Israelites put away their gods and served the Lord. No change, no repentance.
- Repentance doesn't mean perfection. This might seem to contradict #3, but I believe it is more of a healthy balance. Even though the Israelites put away their gods, that didn't mean they did everything right. After this, in chapter 11, they chose what seems to be the wrong judge. This doesn't mean they didn't repent in the story in chapter 10. I believe this simply means that they are experiencing the Romans 7 reality.