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Judges 8:1-21
September 26, 2004


Remember where we are. Chapter 6 contained a lengthy narrative of Gideon’s call to be the deliverer of God’s people and of his destruction of the Baal sanctuary that his own family had sponsored for his town. Last week, in chapter 7, we considered Gideon’s defeat of a large Midianite army (reinforced with the soldiers of some other eastern peoples). The emphasis in that narrative, as you remember, fell on the victory being the Lord’s doing, not Gideon’s, not Israel’s. It is a point the Lord was concerned to make precisely because he expected that, given Israel’s spiritual condition at the time, her lack of true and living faith in him, any success in battle the Lord was to give her, she would attribute to herself. The chapter ends with Gideon acting in such a way – calling out a larger army to finish off the enemy when a tiny force with no weapons had been enough to defeat that great Midianite army in the first place – as to suggest that he himself had fallen prey to that very temptation, to take to himself what so obviously and dramatically and unmistakably belonged alone to God. That impression is confirmed as the next chapter begins. We are reminded in such passages how powerful is the tendency of the human heart to unbelief and how invariably human beings will give in to that tendency unless God intervenes with a powerful force to check it and hold it at bay. It should never surprise us that men do not believe in what God says and does – no matter the evidence they must ignore or deny to do so – but it should always provoke wonder and gratitude that so many human beings do believe in God and his Word and his works. Nothing is so obviously or necessarily the work of the Holy Spirit and his work alone as that men have living faith in God and Christ.

Text Comment

The reader of the Gideon narrative, given the way the book has proceeded to this point, naturally expects here an ending summary statement such as we are given in 8:28. But there is more to his story and the remainder is not so happy.

v.1 The Ephraimites are more concerned about a perceived snub than they are happy for the victory God gave Israel. The fractiousness of the people of God has already surfaced in Judges and will again. Tribal cohesion has largely disappeared; a sense of belonging to a single nation. “Even in victory Israel remains her own worst enemy.” [Block, 286] The specific problem of Ephraim’s proud and selfish attitude will resurface in 12:1-6.

v.3 Gideon, in other words, answers diplomatically and mollifies their resentment. He reminds them that when they were summoned to help with mopping up operations, it was the Ephraimites who captured the two men who were apparently the senior Midianite military commanders and so may be said to have delivered the coup de grace to the invaders. While maximizing the Ephraimite role in the victory, he minimizes his own. Gideon was obviously an effective leader to some degree, but we are left wondering why he says nothing about his having conducted himself in preparation for the battle in accordance with the Lord’s instructions or about the battle being so obviously the Lord’s achievement and not that of any man or tribe. That would have been, after all, the most decisive answer to the Ephraimites’ complaint: it was the Lord’s will that the battle be conducted as it was and it was his victory. They needn’t worry about sharing the glory with others or missing glory that might have been theirs, for all the glory belonged to God.

Now we learn that vv. 1-3 represent something of a digression. We pick up the narrative of Gideon and his 300 men once more. We were not told this in chapter 7, but as we learn in 8:10, the two Midianite kings and 15,000 men had escaped across the Jordan and were still in flight.

v.5 Succoth was, at this time, an Israelite town. Remember 2 ½ of the 12 tribes had settled in the Trans-Jordan at the time of the conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua. One supposes that Israelites would be happy to assist their victorious leader and so assist in the capture of their common enemy. Gideon seems diplomatic enough. He might have been expected simply to confiscate the needed provisions, but he asks and gives reasons.

v.6 The men of Succoth are not of a mind to help. And we wonder why, given the response of the tribes of Israel who had been summoned to battle in the first place, back in 6:34-35 and 7:23. Does this mean that the Spirit of the Lord had left Gideon?

v.9 Gideon responds in kind to the two towns and threatens retribution.

v.11 We have not been told to this point precisely how large the Midianite army had been or how many had fallen. As we have said in other contexts there is a question as to whether the Hebrew word (ףלא) meaning “thousand,” in military contexts should be translated as a number or as meaning a military unit of some particular size. In such a case the actual number may have been considerably smaller than those we are given here. In any case, the number of Midianites still far exceeds the size of his own little band. Here we are not told how such a small band defeated such a large force, but it does cast doubt on the need for Gideon to have called out a larger army to mop up as he had at the end of chapter 7. Clearly God still gave the victory to Gideon and the numbers tell the tale. God promised deliverance and he gave it, even if his deliverer, by this time, leaves a lot to be desired. We suspected when Gideon called out the larger army that the Lord had purposely reduced in size that Gideon was forgetting whose victory it was and that suspicion is only the more confirmed when we find that it was still possible for Gideon to defeat the entire remnant of that great army with his little band of 300.

v.14 This is a highly interesting verse. First, we have mention of elders, which have not been mentioned in the book to this point. In the absence of a central government, towns were governed by the heads of clans and families, the elders. Further, here is a striking confirmation that the ability to read and write was widespread in that time and place. The man probably wrote the names on a piece of pottery or a tanned skin. How reading and writing were taught we are never told in the Bible (there is almost nothing explicit about schooling in Holy Scripture) nor how widespread the ability was in Israel. Were all Israelite children taught to read and write? We don’t know. But this verse certainly seems to suggest that the ability was commonplace. Just a word by the way. In some circles of evangelicals you will, from time to time, hear very confident things about what sort of education the Bible requires parents to give their children (for example, home schooling or a Christian school). The fact is, we don’t know how Israelite or even early Gentile Christian children were schooled. We don’t know how they learned their three Rs. That leaves us with a good bit of liberty to work out what we think are the best approaches to the education of our children.

v.16 He gave them a public whipping which would have been even worse for the humiliation than the physical pain.

v.17 Gideon’s blood was up and he was much more savage in his punishment of Peniel. He not only tore down its defensive fortification, but killed the men of the town. Remember, these were Israelites that he killed and left defenseless. Gideon is, in all of this, no longer doing the Lord’s work, or following the Lord’s instructions. There is no mention of the Lord in any of this. He punishes savagely anyone who has the temerity to question him or to deny him what he wants, Israelite or no. In the providence of God this viciousness is going to recoil on the head of his own son, Abimilech, as we will read at the end of chapter 9.

By the way, this is one place of many in the Bible in which we are reminded that there are ethics for war. It is by no means the case that anything goes once the fighting has begun. The Bible makes very careful distinctions between the ethics of war and the ethics of peace (for example, one can be a spy in war, but not for one’s company to secure privileged information from a competitor; one can be violent in war in a way that is forbidden in peace), but there are ethics governing behavior in war as well. And here as everywhere else in life, motivation is key. If war is not conducted for proper reasons it is simply theft and murder on a grand scale.

Having taken care of his Israelite critics, he now turns to deal with the captured kings.

v.18 We’ve heard nothing to this point about Israelite losses to the Midianites at Tabor. Clearly this was on some previous occasion. The kings, anxious to say anything that might serve to spare their lives, flatter Gideon.

v.19 Now we learn that at least some of Gideon’s brothers had been killed by the Midianites.

v.20 Jether’s hesitancy reminds us of his father back in chapters 6 and 7. But Gideon is now a different man. We are getting a picture of Gideon that is much less attractive. He no longer seems interested in the deliverance of Israel; his capture of the kings and execution of them is now a personal vendetta. He uses the Lord’s name glibly in a vow, but we no longer have any sense that Gideon is motivated by the honor of the Lord or his interests among his people. And then he asks his son to do his dirty work for him. But the boy had not yet developed Gideon’s stomach for violence.

v.21 The crescent ornaments worn on the necks of royal camels were customary trophies of victory. [Block, 296] Gideon seems now to consider himself the victor, not the Lord, and himself the one to whom the spoils of victory belong.

What seems very clear as we move from chapter 7 to chapter 8 is that the Lord’s fear, expressed in 7:2, that Israel would forget the Lord when he gave them victory over their enemies, comes true not only in the case of the people as a whole (of whom the men of Ephraim are a prime example), but in Gideon himself. The word עשי, to save, is found six times in the earlier part of this narrative, in chapters 6 and 7. In every case the point is that it is not Gideon and not the Israelites themselves who will save Israel but Yahweh. But now victory has transformed the timid and hesitant Gideon. He drives his tiny army with frenzied determination after the much more substantial remnants of the Midianite army, despite the hunger and weariness of his men and despite the refusal of some Israelite towns to help him. In all of this narrative there is no mention, as there was so explicitly before, of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Gideon, or of the Lord giving him victory. We have only to compare 8:11-12 with 7:14, 22 to see how the narrator has removed the Lord from consideration in chapter 8. And we discover near the end that Gideon was not serving the Lord – though on several occasions he invokes the Lord’s name quite glibly – but pursing a personal vendetta. He is exacting vengeance in a kind of blood feud. He has become a ruthless man, even willing to kill a number of Israelites to punish them for not showing him a proper deference. He whipped the first bunch but wasn’t satisfied with that in the case of the second.

By the unexpected introduction of his son, Jether, in v. 20, the narrator allows us to remember what Gideon had been like and to see him as he now is – cruel, bloodthirsty, and, apparently, forgetful of how it was God who had given him his victory.

Last time we said, from chapter 7, that the emphasis was everywhere, explicitly and emphatically that God was Israel’s savior and he alone. His reduction of Israel’s force to a tiny company was intended to ensure that Israel understood that. God knew Israel and knew how doubtfully she would draw the right conclusion or keep it in her head for any length of time. Chapter 8 is the proof that God was not needlessly concerned.

We are discovering, as we make our way through this book, that it, among other things, is a study in the nature of faith and unbelief. And here too this is the central point. Israel’s unbelief, and Gideon’s in particular – the unbelief of a believing man, for we cannot doubt that Gideon was a man of faith, he is said to be such in Hebrews 11, however much he failed that faith on this occasion – I say this unbelief takes the form, as it so often does, of taking to oneself what belongs to God. This was Israel’s sin, her failure. This was the consequence of what we have called her Canaanization. She looked to herself when she should have looked to God. Gideon forgot God and began to think of himself as a conqueror, Gideon the Great. This is what God warned would happen, this is what the steps taken prior to the battle were intended to prevent happening, and this is what eventually happened. And this is what often happens in a Christian’s life. A believer’s unbelief is often the very same thing, a taking to oneself what belongs alone to God.

Now there is a spiritual lesson of great importance here. And it is a lesson the American church needs particularly to learn. We are success oriented people. We assume that it is good to succeed and bad to fail, or bad to struggle, or bad to do without. Our whole economic life as a people is predicated on the assumption that prosperity is good and austerity is bad. And there is surely a sense in which that is true. The covenant document of Deuteronomy promises prosperity to God’s faithful people.

However, we are reminded a thousand times in Holy Scripture that while poverty, struggle, and doing without has slain its thousands, success has slain its 10,000s. Jesus said that it was harder for rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. He never said that about a poor man. And it was precisely this warning that God gave his people as they were poised to enter the Promised Land.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” [6:10-12]

As in Judges 7 the Lord was anticipating the failing that Israel was likely to succumb to: prosperity would undo her faith in God, would cause her to forget whence her blessings came.

You remember the prayer of the wise man, Agur. We read it in Proverbs 30:7-9.

“Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal and so dishonor the name of my God.”

John Bunyan, in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress has Christiana observe at Interpreter’s house,

“‘Give me not riches’ is scarce the prayer of one of ten thousand.”

And we know it is so with us, do we not. We want prosperity. We do not imagine that it should be a bad thing, only a good thing. Always to be able to pay our bills without a pinch; always to be happy in our relationships; always to be content with the lives our children are living; always to be moving upward at work; always to feel that all is well with our life. There are many forms of prosperity. Surely that is what we all want. Surely that would be a good thing.

But the Bible is against you in thinking so. As David says in Ps. 30:6: “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’” And when a man or a woman, even a believing man or woman thinks that, troubles lie ahead, more sin, less holiness, and less forward movement for the kingdom of God. God gave Gideon spectacular prosperity and success and it went to his head and the goodness of God and the power of God became the very reasons why Gideon forgot God and forsook God.

In his great work on Temptation, John Owen devotes a chapter to what he calls the “special seasons of temptation.” The first of those “special seasons” is “unusual prosperity.” Another is “self-confidence.” [Works, vi, 127-131] Well these were Gideon’s seasons of temptation and they were his undoing. Of prosperity Owen writes,

“Prosperity and temptation go together; yea, prosperity is a temptation, many
temptations, and that because, without eminent supplies of grace, it is apt to
cast a soul into a frame and temper exposed to any temptation…”

Well, is that not what happened with Gideon. The last thing we expected of him in chapters 6 and 7 was that he would turn into a super-confident tyrant, a cruel, vengeful, and violent man. But that is what success made of the timid Gideon.

But I want to remind you of the comfort that is here also for you and for me. Gideon’s story is, in a strange and backward sort of way, a great encouragement to us, or should be. He was better when he struggled than when he prevailed. There is the lesson. We have struggles. We all do of one kind or another. Life ends up being harder than we thought. There are increasing disappointments, worries, dissatisfactions, frustrations: with ourselves, with our circumstances, with others. And what we learn here and in so many other places of the Word of God is that it must be so. Without these struggles, without the difficulties of life, we would forget God, we would begin to live without regard to our dependence upon him and our debt to his grace and mercy. Our hearts would grow hard and our minds worldly. Now, to be sure, God suits the particular struggles to the particular lives of his children. We don’t all struggle because we haven’t enough money, or because our marriage is difficult, or because our children struggle to embrace a godly life for themselves, or because our work-place is so fraught with difficulties for us. Each to his own. God knows what we need. But the point is that there is this element of difficulty, of hardship, of doing without, of wanting in the Christian life. And it is universal precisely because it is necessary for our spiritual health. We see it so clearly in a time of spiritual defection and apostasy in Israel here in the Gideon narrative. But we can see it in each individual Christian life, and in our own lives, if only we are careful to look and observe.

Fact is, you don’t really want as much prosperity as you think you do. You think it would solve your problems, when, in fact, it would create far greater and more deadly ones.

There are several things that we often forget that are absolutely essential to our welfare and to our salvation and to making our way to heaven. The first is the intercession of our Savior. He prays for us there at the Right Hand. Would any of us make it to the end without his prayers? And then there is the care of the angels, who are ministering spirits sent to help those who are inheriting salvation. Would any Christian successfully complete his pilgrimage if the angel of the Lord were not encamped around the righteous? But here is another thing essential to our salvation, another friend of our souls. The trials and troubles of life; the want of certain measures of success, the doing without various kinds of prosperity. The whole Bible reminds us that we cannot get to heaven without these troubles. Faith is too difficult for us to maintain without the pressure of necessity. “Faith’s necessity in a fair day is never known aright,” said Samuel Rutherford. Look what happened to Gideon when things went too well for him. And that happened even though the Lord had taken pains to warn Gideon against this very danger of forgetting God when things go well.

The 20th century Scottish preacher, James Stewart, put it this way: “Relax life’s hardships, remove its hardships, and who among us would be safe?” [The Strong Name, 149] Malcolm Muggeridge was blunter still.

“Supposing you eliminated suffering, what a dreadful place the world would be!
…because everything that corrects the tendency of…man to feel over-important
and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he
would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.” [Cited by Brian Moore,
Pulpit and People, 147]

As it turned out, Gideon was safest when his circumstances frightened him and he was constantly going to God for reassurance. He was at his worst when God had given him a great victory and it was easy for him to think of himself as successful; when his soul was no longer pressed with his need for the help only the Lord could supply.

It is only Rutherford, among all the experts on the Christian life and the true mind of the godly that I have ever read, who puts it finally so absolutely.

“Madam,” he writes to Lady Kenmure, “when ye are come to the other side of the water, and have set down your foot on the shore of glorious eternity, and look back again to the waters and to your wearisome journey, and shall see, in that clear glass of endless glory, nearer to the bottom of God’s wisdom, ye shall then be forced to say, ‘If God had done otherwise with me than he hath done, I had never come to the enjoying of this crown of glory.” [Letter xi, 52]

In other words, if you had more money in your pocket than you do, if your marriage was easier than it is, if your children never caused you any sleepless nights, if your work was always endless pleasure and satisfaction, you wouldn’t make it to heaven. It is as simple an equation as that.

When you struggle to pay your bills (so long as that struggle is not the result of your spending more than you should), when you struggle to maintain proper relationships in your marriage and family, when you struggle at your job, whenever it is hard work or the cause of worry for you because of some want of what you would think would be success or prosperity, you remember what success did to Gideon and what it so often has done to folk who were sure they would never think the way they came to think after they prospered and never act the way they acted after they became successful. Think for a few minutes of what kind of person you might very well become – not what sort of person you dream of becoming, but what sort of person you might very well become – if God gave you all you wanted. I guarantee you it would horrify you to see yourself after such prosperity had remade you. God warned timid Gideon of the danger that a great victory would pose and he hadn’t finished the battle before he had forgotten everything the Lord had said and become a different and a much poorer man. You remember that and you accept that the Lord knows what he is doing when he sprinkles your life with the lack of success and the want of great victory.

Count each affliction, whether light or grave,
God’s messenger sent down to thee; do thou
With courtesy receive him; rise and bow;
And, ere his shadow cross thy threshold, crave
Permission first his heavenly feet to lave;
Then lay before him all thou hast.
[Aubrey De Vere]