STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 9
September 19, 2004
We began last time, when we took up the first section of the Gideon narrative, that up to this point in the account of the various judges, the career of each one has been reported in a summary way with little or relatively little detail. Othniel took a paragraph; Ehud a small chapter; Shamgar two sentences. Even Deborah and Barak receive only a medium length chapter, though a substantial poem doubles that account. But now, with Gideon, we enter new waters. The narrative of his judgeship takes three substantial chapters, with a fourth, chapter 9, as something of an appendix to the Gideon narrative. We get the familiar formula in 6:1 that begins the account of a judge and Israel’s deliverance – “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…” – but we don’t get the familiar concluding formula – “the land enjoyed peace forty years” – until 8:28.
We also proposed an outline for the Gideon material.
6:1-32 Gideon’s fight against idolatry
6:33-7:25 Gideon’s fight against the Midianites
8:1-21 Gideon’s fight against his own people, the Israelites
8:22-32 Gideon’s lapse into idolatry
In such a scheme, idolatry both begins and ends the narrative, leaving Israel at the end in the same spiritual crisis she was in at the beginning. That, we said, agrees with the thesis of the prologue of Judges that the history recorded in the book is the history of a downward spiritual spiral that is not arrested by any of the deliverances that the Lord provides for Israel when she cries out to him.
We then pointed out in the first section, 6:1-32 that Gideon was himself an idolater, as was his father but that God, as he had done in Moses’ case long before, required him to rid himself of his disobedience before he would be used to rescue Israel from the Midianites. We pointed out that the extra detail in the account of Gideon’s call enabled us to see the nature of Israel’s infidelity to God. As we noticed, both in the prophet’s speech in v. 7ff and in the behavior of the men of Ophrah in vv. 29ff a point is made of Israel’s defection from the revelation that God had given them. They had, in other words, departed from the Scripture. They had forsaken the truth as God had revealed it to them in Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy. Indeed, the behavior of these Israelite men in vv. 29ff is precisely the reverse of the law that God had laid down for his people in Deuteronomy 13. The first part of the Gideon story reveals the problem: God’s people had forsaken the Word of God.
Now we go on to the next section of the Gideon narrative.
v.33 After the interruption of the narrative with the account of Gideon’s call, the narrator takes us back to the crisis that he had related at the beginning of chapter 6. The Valley of Jezreel, which had figured prominently in the Barak episode, becomes the scene of the action once again.
v.35 Why did Gideon’s clansmen, so recently ready to kill him, respond so readily to his call to arms? The only answer is that provided in v. 34. It was the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Gideon whose authority was conveyed in the summons that Gideon issued to the Israelites. It is the Spirit in and through Gideon, not Gideon himself that explains the ready response. That is made the more clear by the following verses that present Gideon himself as still hesitant and tentative.
v.40 The phrase “as you have promised,” repeated twice, once in 36 and again in 37 (the NIV gives the phrase two different translations, but in both cases it is the same two Hebrew words), indicates that the problem here is Gideon’s lack of confidence in God’s Word. He had been given his orders, he had been given God’s promise, and the Holy Spirit had come upon him. He needed no more direction and no more assurance.
This passage, in that way, has much to do with divine guidance, but not in the way in which many Christians have taken it. When I was growing up in the church people used to talk about “laying out fleeces” as a way of determining God’s will – that is, finding out what God wanted them to do. But what they invariably meant was something very different than what Gideon did. They would devise a test, certainly without God’s permission and without any indication that God would honor the imagined arrangement. They would say to the Lord, “Lord whichever company calls me next, that will be the one you want me to work for.” “Lord, whichever fellow calls me next, that will be the one you want me to marry.” And so forth. But, of course, those were eventualities certain or very likely to happen in any case. What they should have done was to do what Gideon did. “Lord, if you want me to marry Fred, tonight I’ll put a piece of cotton in the backyard and I want all the dew on the cotton and none on the ground. Tomorrow night I want all the dew on the ground and none on the cotton.” What they would have found both nights was dew on both the cotton and the ground. The guidance here and everywhere in the Christian life comes through the Word of God. That should have been enough for Gideon and it is enough for us. Gideon was trying to manipulate God instead of submitting to him in faith.
In this case God condescended to grant Gideon’s foolish request. He not only granted it but did so in such a way as to remove all doubt: Gideon wrung a bowl full of water from the dew on the fleece but, remember, this is holy war. Gideon is about to go into battle and kill large numbers of human beings. Holy war required a measure of certainty in guidance that we are not promised and have no right to expect in making decisions about our lives day by day.
7:1 The narrator’s indecision about what to call Gideon may be a way of saying that he isn’t sure who the real Gideon is. Is he the vacillating coward or the hero about to lead Israel in victory over the Midianites? “Harod” means “trembling.” This place where Gideon camps his army happens to be the Spring of Trembling, perhaps another indication that Gideon’s battle with his own cowardice is not yet won.
v.3 The problem is not enough men – for God can win the victory with no men at all — but so many as to likely cause Israel to think the victory will be her own accomplishment. So the odds of an Israelite victory need to be reduced. For a man such as Gideon was, seeing two-thirds of his army get up and go home must have been horrifying.
v.6 This has long been hard to understand – v. 6 doesn’t follow the division of the two groups suggested in v. 5 – and the solution may be to take the text as referring not to two groups of men – the lappers and the kneelers – but to one group, those who lap by kneeling down. It would be hard to lap like a dog without going down to one’s knees. The translation, in some senses the paraphrase, we have before us in the NIV is possible but so is the other. In that case the Lord is simply selecting the men who did not kneel down to lap like a dog. There happened to be 300 men who pulled the water up to their mouths and did not kneel down to lap directly from the spring. Perhaps they were considered the more alert and careful for not turning their eyes away from the enemy. [Block, 276-277]
v.9 Once again the battle is the Lord’s and he promises Gideon the victory.
v.11 God doesn’t wait for Gideon to protest or to quibble. He addresses the problem of Gideon’s fear directly.
v.12 The reader is now reminded of the physical disparity between the forces of Gideon and those of the Midianites. This is what Gideon saw and this is why he was so reluctant and afraid.
v.13 God had told Gideon to listen to what he heard in the camp and, sure enough, as soon as they get close enough to listen, a soldier is telling his fellow about a dream he had. The Lord was in control of what the Midianite soldiers saw in their dreams!
v.14 How does the man know that this is what the dream meant? Because the Lord has convinced him that this is its meaning!
v.15 Finally, Gideon realizes that he has nothing to fear. God obviously can deal with the Midianites. Victory is his for the taking. Confident of that now he returns to awaken his tiny army and prepare for battle.
v.18 As with the instructions God gave Israel as she advanced against Jericho, these instructions, as a military strategy, seem absurd. An already too small force is to advance against a great army armed with trumpets, pots and torches. Whether Gideon got them from the Lord or simply realized himself that all that was needed was some device to unleash the pent up fear of the Midianite soldiers, the narrator does not say. In any case, all Gideon needs to do is kick in the door, God has already done the rest.
v.20 “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” is a delicious irony. As it turned out the only swords deployed in the battle were in the hands of the Midianites and they used them against one another. That is how completely the Lord handed the Midianite army over to Gideon.
v.22 The attack occurred at midnight and so the Midianite soldiers were suddenly awakened from a deep sleep by the bedlam of trumpets blowing and the smashing of pottery and to the sight of lights all around them. They were already on edge and it was enough to set them to flight and dark as it was to fight against anyone who stood in their way. There are these natural explanations, but the narrator is careful to add that “The Lord caused them to turn on one another…”
The location of the places named is uncertain but presumably the flight was toward the Jordan and to safety in the expanses of the desert on the other side.
v.25 The Lord had reduced Gideon’s force but Gideon now expands it again. It does seem that, with victory in his grasp, he is in danger of forgetting where his victory came from, as if he needed these additional troops when only a few had been enough to secure the victory. As one scholar puts it [L.R. Klein, cited in Block, 284]:
“The coward has become confident; he directs far-flung mopping up operations which are effectively carried out. But the voice of the Lord is stilled, not to be heard for the balance of Gideon’s narrative. And the Spirit of the Lord, which brought the courage to fight a far greater military force, seems to slip from Gideon’s shoulders in the process.”
That seems right to me, all the more because of the emphasis placed, earlier in the
chapter on the reduction of Gideon’s force precisely so that Israel would not draw the wrong conclusion from the great victory the Lord was to give them. The fact that chapter 8 immediately begins with troubles caused by precisely the spirit the Lord was working against in his instructions to Gideon seems to confirm that Gideon was in error here in calling on a larger army than the one the Lord had provided for him and that had won the victory in the first place.
Now the point being made in this narrative – that the victory is the Lord’s and not Gideon’s, not Israel’s, not man’s – is made in many ways and very often in the Bible.
“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.”
“It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will
be shattered.” [1 Sam. 2:9]
“No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his
great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its
great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who
fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them
from death.” [Ps. 33:17-19]
And, of course, the Bible provides us with unending illustrations of the Lord’s delivering his people or a faithful servant against overwhelming odds: from Israel backed up against the Reed Sea with the Egyptian army bearing down upon her to Elijah on Mt. Carmel, to Peter in a Jerusalem jail or Paul in a storm at sea. God saves not with the many but with the few to show us that it is his salvation, a fact we are as likely to forget as were the Israelites in Gideon’s day.
And it has been the same in church history. Times without number we have seen God doing for men what they never would have or could have done for themselves. Indeed, unique as the Gideon story is in many ways, it is very like other accounts that one might read in church history. Alexander Henderson was the greatest man of the second generation of the Scottish Reformed church. In some ways he is the father of Presbyterianism as a system of church government as that system came to be known in the modern world. Henderson had become a minister well before he had become a Christian, a common enough happenstance in those days. Something like Gideon being called to be Israel’s deliverer when he was still a practicing idolater. He was foisted on a church in Leuchars whose people knew enough not to want him. But not long after becoming the minister of Leuchars he heard that Robert Bruce, the great Reformed preacher was to preach nearby. Bruce was a man of note, a famous man, an important man and so Henderson went to hear him. It was curiosity pure and simple. He had no spiritual interest. He wasn’t eager to hear the Word of God from Bruce. He just wanted to know what all the fuss was about this particular preacher.
But he also did not want to be recognized by any of his parishioners. They were the kind to hear Bruce and were the kind to notice their preacher and wonder why he was there. He had his reputation to think of. Sounds still more like Gideon. So he sneaked into the hall and stood in a back corner, out of sight. That sounds like Gideon sneaking over to the Midianite camp to hear what he might hear, does it not? In the providence of God Robert Bruce’s text for that sermon was “He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” The Lord prepared just the right message for him to hear. Hearing the text and the sermon Henderson was cut to the quick and he left that church a new man in Christ; a believing man and a believing minister with the makings of spiritual greatness. God did that. God made that happen; not Alexander Henderson. And so it always is.
It is a principle first and foremost in the matter of salvation itself. Nothing necessary for our peace with God lies in our power to perform. We cannot satisfy God’s justice in the matter of our sins, we cannot pay an adequate compensation for them; we cannot recreate our own hearts and overcome their bondage to sin and unbelief. God must act. He must pitch his love on us; he must send his son to die for us; the son must save us from our sins by paying for them on the cross; he must rise to new life on the third day and carry us with him out of death and the grave; he must send his Spirit into our hearts; the Spirit must give us new birth, he must convict us of our sin and prove to us that we must have a redeemer; he must work in us faith in Christ, he must keep us faithful to Christ throughout our lives. At every point, through every link in the chain, the work is beyond us and must be done by God himself.
There is no denying this and the Bible never does deny it. Faithful preachers have often rung the changes on the inability of human beings to contribute to their own salvation. Samuel Davies, the great preacher of colonial Virginia, preached a sermon on the total depravity of man, his total spiritual inability to respond to the grace of God and the offer of the gospel, but then closed with an invitation! God could do and would do what man could not.
Man has a free will, to be sure. He does what he pleases. The problem is that he is a bond slave to sin and he is a natural-born rebel against God and he will never please to believe in Jesus unless God bends his will, he will never see the truth unless God illuminates his mind. Some of you, no doubt, saw the PBS special last Wednesday night based on Dr. Armand Nicholi’s The Question of God. Read the book, by the way; it was much better than the TV show, interesting as it was. But if you saw the program you may remember the actor playing C.S. Lewis giving an account of his spiritual realization on the bus going up Headington Hill.
“The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. … I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corselet meant the incalculable. … I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite.” [Surprised by Joy, 224]
Free choice, to be sure. Man is a free creature. God made him that way. He made a creature with a mind and a will and he deals with his creatures through their minds and wills. But Lewis himself, in this famous passage, in the parts that were not quoted in the television documentary, virtually concedes that God was at work and that what he did he could not help do. “God closed in on me,” he says; and “I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite.” Remember the Southern aphorism: “When you find a turtle on top of a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.” Well, when you see a sinner, a rebel against God, a skeptic, a person who had always been indifferent to the Word of God and the message of the gospel suddenly giving glory to God, believing in Jesus Christ, when you see such lives transformed by the love of Christ, you know they did not get there by themselves.
Well what is that but what happened to Gideon? He chose to attack the Midianites. We don’t deny it. And yet he chose because God had chosen him; cured him most powerfully of his idolatry; utterly overcame his doubts and fears; and left him no choice but to do God’s will and to do it willingly. The Lord made him willing in the day of his power.
Here is the fundamental principle of Christian psychology, of the Christian self-consciousness. I am utterly and always in God’s hands. Everything that I require he must provide and even my efforts are worthless apart from his blessing them and using them. What is true about my salvation in its origin is true of the remainder of my Christian life. Its principle of continuance is the same as its principle of origin: a confidence that the Lord must do it and that he will do it and so, on our part, a looking to him.
Dr. Schaeffer used to say that Christians should always be praying for something that only God could give us, something that was simply beyond our means, our power to achieve. His point was that it is far too easy – as Gideon discovered at the very point that the victory had been won by the power and intervention of God – it is far too easy for us to slip immediately into a way of thinking that forgets our utter dependence upon God and his provision, that forgets our inability to control events, that forgets the meagerness of our resources when left to ourselves, and for us again to act as if everything depended on us. So be sure you are remembering that it is not so. And what better way to keep this in mind than always to be praying for what is so clearly beyond our power to achieve: the salvation of a hardboiled acquaintance or friend; the provision of something that is beyond any natural means; reconciliation with someone long disaffected from you. God will often answer those prayers but even as you wait for him to do so you are kept looking to the one who alone can do for us what must be done.
Gideon here is a lesson for the life of every Christian. He reminds us of what we so often fail to remember – that it is not to the swift or to the strong that the battle goes, but to the one who trusts in the Lord – and of how wonderful are the results when God achieves them in us, through us, and for us.