Let’s open our Bibles to the 6th chapter of the book of Judges.
We’ve been through the double introduction to the book. We’ve seen now one minor judge and three major judges. And now today we’ll see the 4th of the 6 major judges that are chronicled in this book. He’s a fearful man. And at the end of his life he brings a snare to Israel. Now, you’ve heard the proverb “the fear of man brings a snare.” So I’ll give this lesson the title “A Fearful Man Brings a Snare.” OK, so let’s get to the text.
Before we can get to this particular judge, we need some background on how he got to be a judge anyway. Why was he needed? What were circumstances like in his day? We have answers to those questions in verses 1 through 6 of chapter 6.
We won’t read word-for-word. I’ll just summarize some points. Israel did evil in God’s site. And so we see God again delivering his people over to their enemy. God’s not content to let his people get away with enjoying their sin. The way of a transgressor is hard, after all. And that’s what Israel experienced.
In particular, God gave Israel over to the Midianites. And this group’s activity toward Israel is detailed for us to an unusual degree. Maybe that’s because they seem to be unusually cruel toward Israel. The Midianties were set on Israel’s destruction. They weren’t happy to simply tax Israel and rule over them. No, these Midianites – according to verse 4 – would come during the harvest and destroy everything that the Israelites had – crops and animals. Notice I said they destroyed everything Israel had. They didn’t take it. The Midianites didn’t just devour Israel’s crops and animals to feed themselves and their families. They just ruined everything and left.
This would seem to be especially humiliating to Israel. How dispiriting and discouraging this would have been. This goes on for 7 years. And Israel reacts to this continual devastation by crying out to the Lord. They need someone to save them.
Now, we’ve seen this pattern before, haven’t we? Israel sins, God sends oppressors, Israel cries out to God – and then what does God do? He sends a savior – a deliverer. Right away, as far as we can tell. But he doesn’t do that this time. He doesn’t send a savior right away.
What does he do? In verses 7 through 10 God sends not a deliverer, but a prophet. You can sense that God’s patience is wearing a little thin. He’s incredibly patient with his sinful people. He’s been sending saviors right away when they cry out. But now he feels the need to rebuke them. And he reminds Israel that he delivered them from Egypt. He drove out the Canaanites – or at least for as long as they walked with him. And his only command was to not fear the false gods of the Amorites. But – last few words of verse 10 – “ye have not obeyed my voice.”
This is the second rebuke that God has issued in this book. His first rebuke came from an angel or messenger in chapter 2. And there’s a lot of similarity between these two divine rebukes. They follow the same lines generally. But one thing is noticeably absent here that was present in the first rebuke. When the angel rebuked Israel before how did the people react? They wept. But this time? No such reaction. Do you suppose that this indicates that the people are generally growing colder and colder to God’s rebukes and chastenings? I think so.
Well, whether the people are reacting properly to God’s rebukes or not, God indeed calls a savior to save his people from the results of their sin. Now that we see the need for him to arise and deliver his people, we can get acquainted with him. His name is Gideon. He lives in Ophrah with his father Joash. And the end of verse 11 tells us that Gideon “threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites”. What do you typically do with a wine press? Is it meant for threshing wheat? No, it’s meant for stomping grapes. You thresh wheat on a threshing floor. But remember, they can’t do that because the Midianites will come and destroy it. So Gideon is hiding in a wine press threshing wheat. It’s a pathetic picture we have.
But now an angel appears to him and gives him this curious greeting in verse 12 – “The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour”. Do you think that’s a bit of an overstatement? What was the angel trying to say to Gideon? Was he mocking Gideon? That wouldn’t seem right, so no, I don’t think he was mocking. Well, was the angel stating the fact – that Gideon indeed is a naturally mighty man of valour? I think we’ll see time and again in this story that Gideon is really not naturally inclined toward bravery and feats of daring. So, I don’t think the angel is stating the facts. I think what’s happening here is this. The angel is telling Gideon what he will be if only Gideon follows the Lord.
Do you know what it is to feel yourself completely incapable of doing something – until the Lord calls you to do it? Jesus called the man with the withered hand to stretch it out. But you can’t stretch out a withered hand! Oh, but you can – if the Lord commands you to do it. The Lord Jesus commanded Peter to walk on water. But a man cannot walk on water! Oh yes he can – if God commands him to. Gideon is not naturally mighty. Don’t believe me? Then you’ll hear it from his mouth in a few verses. He’ll argue with the Lord that he’s weak. But God sees what he can do with Gideon if Gideon just follows him.
But sort of anti-climatically, Gideon argues with the Lord. The Lord is ready to make him a mighty man of valor. But Gideon wants to take issue with the Lord on both of his statements.
First, Gideon argues that the Lord is definitely not with him or with his people Israel. In verse 13 Gideon points to the calamity that Midian brings constantly to this nation. If the Lord is with Israel then why is this happening? Gideon says that he’s been told of the wonderful things God did in delivering Israel from Egypt. But he hasn’t seen it. He doesn’t know it. And remember — that new generation that arose didn’t know the Lord or his mighty deeds. Gideon apparently is a son of that generation.
What’s interesting to note is that the Lord explained all of this through his prophet just a few verses ago. The Lord laid it out very clearly why calamity had befallen Israel. Did Gideon not hear about that word of rebuke from the prophet? Or did he hear it and was just now airing frustration with the way the Lord was dealing with his people?
Now, the Lord’s response is noteworthy. The first few words of verse 14 – “The Lord looked upon him.” What was the Lord’s expression? What was his countenance like? Was he astonished that Gideon didn’t remember the explanation he gave as to why Israel was being oppressed? At any rate, the Lord proceeds and issues his call to Gideon to deliver Israel from the very enemy whose presence Gideon points to as a sign that the Lord – the one he’s speaking with – is not with him. And God promises Gideon that he indeed is the one sending him off to battle.
That should settle matters. But it doesn’t. And this is where Gideon’s second objection comes in. First, He objected to God’s call based on God’s apparent abandonment of his people. And now he objects based on his own weakness and insignificance. In verse 15 Gideon claims to be from a poor family in Manasseh. And even worse – he’s the youngest member of this poor family.
But does God only work through rich people? Does he favor only those are firstborns in their family? Of course not. So God responds with assurance. The strength that Gideon will have is the Lord himself. “Surely, I will be with thee” the Lord says in verse 16.
OK, so the Lord responds to both of Gideon’s objections. That should settle it. But it doesn’t. Gideon now asks for a sign in verse 17. Gideon asks God if he can bring an offering to him. The Lord consents. Gideon goes and returns with the sacrifice. God causes the sacrifice to burn up and then he immediately disappears from Gideon’s sight. This causes Gideon to fear that he’ll die because now he knows he saw the Lord. But God simply responds in verse 23 “Peace unto thee. Fear not. Thou shalt not die.” And Gideon builds an altar in response to this interaction.
Thus ends the section outlining God’s calling of Gideon. He seems a bit reluctant to accept God’s call. Even when the angel of the Lord – whom I understand to be the Lord himself appearing physically – issues the call to Gideon he’s finding objections and excuses. Finally he gives in but really wants to make sure that it’s the Lord. He wants verification. He does this kind of thing with the fleece as well later on. So I think we can say that Gideon is generally slow to accept God’s call and commands.
Alright, so that’s Gideon’s call. And that very night in which he was called, Gideon received another order from the Lord in verses 25 through 32.
His father – according to verse 25 – had an altar that was dedicated to the Canaanite god Baal. God tells Gideon to go and take his father’s one ox and another ox from somewhere else and pull down that idolatrous altar. Gideon agrees to do it. That’s a step in the right direction. No objections. Just action. Great. But… Gideon actually ends up pulling down the altar at night. Well, what’s the big deal with that? We get his motivation for doing it by night in the middle of verse 27 – “he feared his father’s household and the men of that city.” So he couldn’t do it by day. I thought this guy was supposed to be a valiant warrior. God kept talking about his strength. What’s going on? He’s afraid to tear down an idolatrous altar. Well, get used to it – we’re going to see more of this kind of behavior. And the only strength and might and valor that Gideon really has is the Lord himself.
But Gideon does ultimately tear down the altar. And when the men of the city wake up the next morning they’re angry. They come to Gideon’s dad and tell him to bring out his son. From this, I imagine that Gideon was still living at home with his father. But at any rate, his father actually stands up for his son and won’t let the people put him to death. His rationale – end of verse 31 – “if [Baal] be a god, let him plead for himself.” Baal can punish Gideon if he’s real. I think Gideon’s father’s reaction is interesting. Joash is the one who had that altar. I kind of thought he would be angry. But he’s not. Here’s what I take from this. Gideon obeyed the Lord’s command to pull down the altar. But he feared the repercussions of that obedience. But look how his father reacts anyway! He doesn’t kill Gideon. He doesn’t even punish him in any way. He actually almost seems to recognize the senselessness of his idolatry. Why? Because of one simple faithful – though fearful – act of his own child. Gideon obeys, fearing the consequences. But that very obedience affects his father and maybe even opens his eyes to see that Baal is no god at all.
Have you ever experienced something like that? You knew God wanted you to do something. But the possible effects of that obedience terrified you? You and I just never really know what the Lord will do if we just take him at his word and obey him.
So, this episode with the altar is just the beginning of Gideon’s judging of Israel. We see his role as judge really start to take form in verses 33 through 35. We’ll read verse 33 to set the stage – “Then all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the children of the east were gathered together, and went over, and pitched in the valley of Jezreel.” Then the Spirit of the Lord comes upon Gideon and he gathers a number of tribes to him – namely, his own tribe Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. And they come.
Well, that sounds good. Gideon is looking pretty brave and faithful now. Ah, but not so fast. Verses 36 through 40 tell us about the infamous fleece incident. Gideon says to God in verse 36 – “If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, Behold I will put a fleece of wool in the floor…” And then he gives his scheme involving the fleece and the dew whereby he basically tests the Lord. And he is testing the Lord. Let me call attention to his wording. “If” – like there’s a question about whether God will do as he promised. So “if” God will do as he promised. And then “as thou hast said.” So, Gideon is recognizing that God has already promised him something. But Gideon just really needs to verify that God will indeed keep his promise. This just seems like a complete lack of faith on Gideon’s part. And you and I could rightfully expect God to not honor such a request to put dew on the fleece but not on the ground and then the next day to do the opposite. God wouldn’t have to answer this zany request. But you know what? God does answer it. He does just as Gideon requested. He condescends to Gideon’s fear and faithlessness.
Do we ever do something like this? By the way, we shouldn’t. OK? This is not normative behavior for believers. But do we practice this kind of “putting out the fleece” as they say? Maybe you know something to be God’s will. But you just really, really need to make sure. OK. It’s fine and good to make sure that you’re understanding God’s word in order to make sure you’re doing according to what he commands and such. But really at some point are you just stalling? Don’t do that. Gideon did it and he’ll do it again in this story. But Gideon is not your example in this respect. So don’t imitate him.
OK, so God does encourage Gideon to keep going and doing his will. So in verse 1 of chapter 7 we see Gideon and his army camping near a spring. It’s called the well of Harod. It’s actually a place in the modern day where Israeli youth go to remember the military accomplishments of Gideon as they’re preparing to enter into the armed services there. And it’s elevated above the valley on the north where the Midianites are.
Now, God comes to Gideon again and tells Gideon – verse 2 – that “The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.” So it’s clear that God wants everyone to know – Gideon and all Israel – that when Israel wins, it’s not because of the natural strength of any man or group of men. The Lord wants everyone to know that he brought about the victory against Midian. So God proceeds to whittle down the number of folks on Israel’s side. They start off with about 33,000 men. Then God says in verse 3 that Gideon should dismiss anyone who is afraid. And about 2/3 of the men gathered return. It’s a good sign that Gideon didn’t leave when that option was offered. So there are about 10,000 men left to fight. Is that a small enough number to fight the numberless hoards of Midianites? God didn’t think so. So, he develops a seemingly arbitrary standard to weed out more men. It’s all based on how a man drinks water at the spring of Harod. One group drank one way. The other group drank another way. And the smaller group – consisting of 300 men – was chosen. The other 9,700 men left. Can you imagine how they would have reacted? What if Gideon let them know why they were being let go? Sorry – you drink funny. Or you didn’t drink funny enough! What does that have to do with war? Nothing. That’s the point. This war wasn’t about human might. God was going to show his strength and his salvation through some really weak means.
Do you think God does this kind of thing today still? I’m no prophet. I have no direct communication from God on the matter. But do you suppose that God was caught off-guard by the small attendance this morning with folks working at camp and summer camp staff being gone? Are you discouraged? Please don’t be. God’s still in control. We can trust him to help us worship him and build each other up no matter how many we have.
Now, verse 9 starts telling us about some other event that happened the night of the choosing of the army. End of verse 9 – God says to Gideon “Arise, get thee down unto the host; for I have delivered it into thine hand.” Oh boy. I can guess how Gideon is going to react. Will he bring out that old fleece again? Will he get another offering for the Lord to set on fire and prove himself again? What other test can he muster in order to verify that God is faithful? Well, it’s funny. The Lord anticipates this kind of thing from Gideon. So this time the Lord preemptively offers verification to poor fearful Gideon. Look at verse 10 – “But if thou fear to go down, go thou with Phurah thy servant down to the host: 11 And thou shalt hear what they say; and afterward shall thine hands be strengthened to go down unto the host.”
So God condescends to Gideon. How does Gideon respond? I could imagine someone hearing that from the Lord and saying “Oh no, I’ll take you at your word. Let’s do this!” But Gideon goes right down to the camp of the Midianites to take God up on his offer. When Gideon and his servant come down to the camp of the enemy under the cover of night they see Midianites, Amalekites, and all sorts of groups from the east like a huge swarm of grasshoppers. They have numberless camels. And I’ll summarize what happens in verses 13 and 14. Gideon comes and just happens to hear a Midianite telling his fellow Midianite about a dream that he had. Here’s the dream. A loaf of bread rolled down the hill into a Midianite tent. The tent completely flips over and lays flat. Now, the other guy hears the dream and says basically “that means that Gideon is coming and will completely destroy us Midianites! And God’s on Gideon’s side.” And this “chance” happening is what it took for Gideon to stop fearing! No, God’s promises weren’t enough. He had to hear the interpretation of the dream of a pagan enemy of Israel in order to be encouraged to trust God’s promise.
But that’s just what it took and the Lord graciously allowed that to happen. So, Gideon returns to camp pumped up! Starting in verse 15 he starts dividing the company of 300 men into 3 units. Each man gets a trumpet, a pitcher, and a torch. He instructs them to do as he does.
In verse 19 we have the men surrounding the camp of Midian in the middle of the night. They smash the pitchers, hold the torches, and blow the trumpets.
Now, come on. 300 men blowing trumpets is going to do anything against the host of Midian? Well, with God all things are possible. The Midianites awake to blowing trumpets, torches and light dancing off the broken shards of the pitchers. And they run. And then the Lord steps in and sets the Midianites against each other in their confusion. We’ll find out later that 120,000 Midianites die in this battle. Can you imagine – 300 vs. over 120,000… and the 300 win! Only with the Lord. That’s something like 400 Midianites for every one Israelite. Incredible.
Well, as Midian is fleeing, some men from Naphtali, Asher, and Manasseh come out and pursue them. I wonder if any of these guys were the ones who went back at the spring of Harod. Then Gideon sends for Ephraim to come and cut off the fleeing Midianites by the Jordan River. The Ephraimites capture two leaders of Midian – Oreb and Zeeb – and slay them. Then they bring their heads to Gideon.
By the way, it’s interesting that Gideon calls Ephraim. It seemed like the Lord really wanted the victory to go to those 300 men. That’s strange. But God doesn’t say anything about it, so maybe it’s OK. You just hate to have to wonder, though. Did Gideon do this out of fear? Was he again not trusting God’s promise? We can’t say for sure. But what we do know is that the Ephraimites end up causing Gideon some problems in the very next section in chapter 8.
But, we’re going to stop here for now. Next time, Lord-willing we’ll finish the story of Gideon and also cover the story of his wicked son Abimelech.