The cycle of the judges has begun and there is a pattern here. First the Israelites disobey the Lord. Because of that disobedience God sends someone to oppress them. Once the oppression becomes unbearable, the Israelites cry out to the Lord and He raises up a deliverer. There is a military victory against the oppressor that God has facilitated and finally Israel is at peace. This lasts until the judge dies and Israel goes back to her old ways of worshiping idols and false gods. Over the course of time Israel had 12 judges. During those years Israel fell prey to Canaanites, Moabites, Philistines, Midianites, Ammonites, and Arameans. The story of each judge begins the same way…again the Israelites did evil in the sight of the Lord.
The judge we encounter in today’s reading is Gideon. There is more space in the book of Judges for Gideon than any other judge. He is also the only judge whose personal struggles with faith are recorded. We watch as he moves from one who questions God to one who trusts and leans into God’s prompting, and finally one who begins to go astray. Like us Gideon has doubts. Given the chance he voices them. He wants to know why the Lord has forsaken them which tells us he was not very familiar with the history of the Israelites and the laws and covenants Gideon’s ancestors had made with the Lord. Scripture tells us the ones the Lord loves He corrects. That was where Israel found themselves. Preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “The Lord does not permit His children to sin successfully.”
Israel had already endured 43 years of suffering under the harsh rule of neighboring nations. But they had not learned much from that. They were still worshiping idols and false gods. But unless our suffering leads to repentance it accomplishes nothing good. One of the things we see about the Lord here is that when He calls His people out for their disobedience, He reminds them about the things He did…bringing them out of Egypt, the way he provided for them in the wilderness, and how He gave them the land they were now living in. The other thing we see is that God often chooses the unlikely to do amazing things. Gideon wasn’t a man of strong faith or courage. God had to spend some time with Gideon to prepare him for leadership. Like Moses, Gideon had excuses for why God should choose someone else for the job at hand. And like Moses, God showed Gideon why he was the right guy. But Gideon is not much different than we are. God told Gideon He would make him a conqueror and Gideon questioned God. How many of us have ever done that?!
Gideon prepared an offering for the angel of the Lord who visited him, which would have been costly in those days because the Midianites were taking everything the Israelites had. Food was scarce. Gideon prepared the offering and brought it to the angel of the Lord. Gideon was afraid of his inability to be used but he was about to be afraid of the Lord. He presented the offering to the angel of the Lord and fire consumed the entire offering. Then Gideon knew he had been in the presence of the Lord. He was afraid he would die. But God had chosen him to free his people from bondage to the Midianites.
His first task for the Lord was to destroy the altar to Baal and the Asherah in the town. Gideon did so but he did it under the cover of darkness out of fear. He still didn’t fully trust in the Lord or His provision. And Gideon had questions to make sure the Lord was who He said He was. Would God make the fleece dry and the ground wet…and then the reverse the next night? How many of us have asked for a sign as well…a billboard or something, anything so we can be sure. And then God was ready to really test Gideon’s faith. Gideon had assembled troops in preparation to fight the Midianites and their allies, but God had other plans. There were too many troops in the Israelite army, enough that if they won, they would think it was because of what they had managed to accomplish. God wanted to make sure the people knew the victory came strictly from Him. Gideon was instructed to send home any of the troops who were afraid and two thirds of them left…22,000 men ran back home. Still there were too many so God sent Gideon and the remaining troops to the water. I love the picture here. God said He would sift the men and choose who would stay to fight. In the end Gideon was left with 300 fighting men to go up against the Midianite army. If Israel won it would be because of the power and might of the Lord, which is exactly what the Lord wanted!
If Gideon was afraid before, now he is left with a very small army. God dealt with those fears by sending Gideon and another to spy out the Midianite camp. At least four times God told Gideon He would deliver the Midianites into his hands, but fear is a powerful motivator. Once Gideon heard himself what the enemy was thinking he could feel confident in the victory God had promised. He took his 300 men and ambushed the Midianites in their camp. The Lord threw the Midianite army into confusion and they killed themselves. Now Gideon could see the hand of God at work, and he took comfort and strength from that. He and his men pursued the Midianites across the Jordan River capturing and killing the king. If the story ended right there it would be good.
But the story does not end there. After all the questions and the doubts Gideon had, and the way God led the Israelites into battle and helped them to win you would think Gideon and the Israelites would worship Him forever. Leaders lead by example. Gideon had led in the strength of the Lord until Israel’s victory. The people even begged Gideon to rule over them along with his son and grandson. He gets points for saying he would not be their king…God would. But then the things of the world got in the way and Gideon asked the fighting men to each give him an earing from what they had taken as spoil. That in and of itself is not bad. But Gideon made an ephod for himself out of the gold. He placed it in his hometown and many people came there to worship it and not the Lord. And it became a snare or stumbling block to them.
The Israelites had peace for 40 years during Gideon’s judgeship but as soon as he died the people went right back to worshiping the Baals. So, Gideon won the war but lost the victory. He did not use the occasion for God’s glory but for his own profit and the nation lapsed back into sin. Perhaps Gideon thought he had left his family well provided for. Again, just the opposite proved true. Sixty-nine of his seventy sons were killed by their half brother who was then killed by a woman who dropped a heavy stone on his head. Perhaps pride was involved here. Before the battle with Midian Gideon depended upon the Lord. But afterwards he became authoritative and maybe even a bit vindictive. He said the right things…that God would be their king…but he lived outside of that. He did not lead the people to make a new covenant with the Lord. He did not lead the people in a good direction. In fact, he helped lead them astray once again.
Here is one more thought. Let us be as watchful after the victory as before the battle. There may still be some land mines scattered about. Gideon found that to be true. So do many others. It is best to keep our eyes focused squarely on the Lord.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W