Judges: Learning From Gideon — Patrick Swayne

In the time of Gideon, the Midianites are said to have come “as numerous as locusts” against Israel, evoking the image for near eastern readers of a locust plague (Judg. 6:5, ESV). Israel was left “overpowered” (v. 2), with “no sustenance” (v. 4), and “greatly impoverished” (v. 6).

How can you beat a locust plague? Well, to put it simply, you can’t…but God can (cf. Matt. 19:26). The locust-like Midianite horde had come because “Israel did evil,” and they were powerless to stop them. Thankfully though, when Israel “cried out to the Lord,” He delivered them (Judg. 6:8). The unorthodox method the Lord employed to do so, using Gideon and his 300-strong army equipped with pitchers, torches, and trumpets, features many lessons for Christians today. Like Timothy, we are soldiers of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 2:3-4).  Through the account of Gideon’s battle with the Midianites, we can learn what God desires and even demands of His soldiers today.

God’s army is not for the unbelieving. Before Gideon could lead God’s army to victory, God had to lead Gideon to faith. Our introduction to Gideon in the text is almost comical: Gideon is hiding in a winepress, secretly threshing wheat for fear of the Midianites. At that exact moment, an angel arrives and calls Gideon a “mighty man of valor” (Judg. 6:11-12). Is he really a “mighty man of valor”? Well, no, but clearly, he could be. So why wasn’t he?

It’s significant that Gideon’s first reaction to the angel’s claim is not to question the “mighty man of valor” statement, but rather the statement: “The Lord is with you” (v. 12). Gideon responds by saying, “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about…?” (v. 13).

When we fail to see in our God today the power He exerted in the past as Gideon did, we will find ourselves as Gideon found himself: cowering under oppression (albeit in our case, to Satan) and falling short of our potential. Gideon also doubted himself (v. 15), but he did so because he doubted God. Satan would have us see a detached, powerless, or even non-existent God and in so doing keep us in bondage. It is only through faith in a living, loving, almighty God that we can enjoy “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

God was incredibly patient with Gideon’s unbelief, guiding Gideon to repentance (Judg. 6:25-27) and responding favorably to Gideon’s three requests for confirmation (vs. 17-24, 36-40), two of which came after “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon” (v. 34). God even proactively led Gideon to another confirmation of faith the night of his battle with the Midianites (Judges 7:9-15).

Today, God does not rebuke but instead rewards the seeker (Matt. 7:7-8; James 1:5), and He remains as patient as He can be with unbelievers (2 Pet. 3:9). While He will not reward anyone who fails to believe in His power (Heb. 11:6), He remains more than capable of helping us both to do and to become more than we ever dreamed possible (John 14:12; Eph. 3:20-21). Like Gideon, we must believe.

God’s army is not for the uncommitted or uncourageous. Gideon’s call to arms (Judg. 6:34-35) received a decent response; 32,000 Israelites joined his army. As God looked out at this army, He saw two issues: 1) Given its size, it would be easy for the army to attribute any victory it won to itself rather than God (7:2); 2) Though there were 32,000 soldiers, many of them were actually not prepared to fight. To address the latter issue, the Lord told Gideon, “Whoever is fearful and afraid, let him turn and depart at once from Mount Gilead.” Sadly, “twenty-two thousand of the people returned” (v. 3).

It’s a simple lesson, but an important one.  Even today, God is not interested in simply making up the numbers in His army. Perhaps the greatest argument of the world against Christianity is the hypocrisy it sees in its adherents: people who wear the name of the commander in chief but have no interest in engaging in the conflict. The “double-minded” will receive nothing good from God (James 1:7-8). Instead, the “cowardly” will “have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8).

Surprisingly though, God whittles down Gideon’s army yet again, this time by testing how they drink water. No stated reason beyond God’s initial one is given for this second reduction (cf. Judg. 7:2), and commentators are divided as to whether those kept were those who brought water up to their mouths or lowered their mouths down to the water. If the former, God chose men who demonstrated their awareness; if the latter, God chose men who were fearless enough to trust God to “have their backs.” Either way, the lesson on commitment and courageousness stands, as Gideon’s 300 were unphased by the fact that less than 1% of their initial army remained. Are we likewise prepared to be the faithful few who stand with the Lord even as others pursue and easier path (Matt. 7:13-14)?

God’s army is not for the unbroken and unspoken. God had a unique plan for Gideon’s 300-man army to defeat the Midianites. They were to surround the Midianites’ encampment at night, carrying not swords or spears but pitchers with torches inside of them and trumpets. At the time indicated by Gideon, they were to sound their trumpets, break their pitchers (thus revealing the light of their torches), and cry, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!” (Judg. 7:16-18). The army obeyed, and the mighty Midianites fled, defeated (vs. 19-22).

Looking at this text somewhat allegorically, we can see a powerful New Testament parallel. As Christians, we carry forth the light of God in our hearts through the gospel (2 Cor. 4:6). Yet, as Paul demonstrates by example, it is not until our “earthen vessels” are broken that the glorious, light-giving “life of Jesus” can “be manifested in our body” (vs. 8-10). Intact vessels shine no light, neither in Gideon’s case nor in ours.

But why was Paul’s vessel broken?  It was because he believed and therefore spoke (vs. 13-14), just as Gideon’s soldiers shouted their faith and sounded it forth that night with their trumpets.  Far too many Christians produce an “uncertain sound” with their trumpets (cf. 1 Cor. 14:8), failing to cry out for the Lord when it matters, choosing instead to protect their vessels (e.g., 2 Tim. 4:10).  As it was that evening with Gideon, so it is with us: no noise, no light, no victory.

Again, Christians are soldiers of Jesus Christ.  We commit to warfare when we commit to “the faith” (1 Tim. 1:18-19).  As Gideon did, let us reward God’s patience by placing our faith in Him.  Having found faith as Gideon did, let us commit to standing with the Lord even as others leave.  Finally, let us choose to “endure hardship” (2 Tim. 2:3), allowing our vessels to be broken even as we raise our voices for our Lord and allow His light to shine through us.

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