Readings: Judges 7–8:22
Judges 7:1–23 tells us of the crucial conflict between Midian and Israel within the story of Gideon. In the passages preceding Judges 7, God called Gideon to deliver Israel from the Midianites. Gideon performed a few acts of holy vandalism (destroying his father's idols) and summoned the people of Asher, Naphtali, and Zebulun to muster an army to face their enemies. Around 32,000 men answered the call.
In verse 1, we find Gideon and his men camped next to a spring. The Midianite camp was nearby. The tension in the air was palpable; the two camps were facing each other ready for battle. The army woke up early and seemed to be ready for battle, but we have a few detours along the way.
In verses 2–3, the LORD has a conversation with Gideon about the size of his army. The Israelite army, although large, was still pitiful when compared to the vast Midianite hordes (in verse 12, they are compared to swarms of locusts, as well as sand on the seashore). In an unexpected twist to the plot, God did not tell Gideon, "There are too many Midianites, your army is vastly outnumbered, go out and get more men." Instead, the LORD told Gideon that He wanted him to send some people home. God wanted to make sure that Israel would have no reason to boast, saying to themselves, "My own hand has saved me" (verse 2). The LORD wanted to make sure that they knew that He was responsible for their deliverance.
This is an ongoing theme throughout this chapter-Israel must not boast. The LORD sent home anyone who was cowardly, those who are fearful and trembling. Two-thirds of the army went home. This strikes some as remarkable, but remember this was a volunteer army of farmers and plain folk, not the US Marines. The army was there because they were compelled by Gideon's call to volunteer. So many of them left that Gideon was left with only 10,000 men.
There has been much speculation as to why God chose the lappers instead of the kneelers. Some have said that these three hundred were more militarily alert. They lifted the water up to their mouths to drink it, hence being able to keep their eyes watchful at all times. This being the case, God chose the more alert troops. Other scholars say the exact opposite: that the three hundred lappers were the non-elite, clumsy troops and that God chose them because they were not fit to be in the military.
Neither of those explanations have any basis in the texts, and many commentators and expositors go too far in the conclusions they draw from these theories. All in all, the safest answer is to say that the text is unclear, and that God chose three hundred men based on drinking styles. We are not told why. The drinking test was merely the LORD's mechanism for reducing the army and may not have any significance in and of itself. Remember, the emphasis in this passage is on quantity, not quality. God was reducing the army so that the glory would go to Him.
This is not like the three hundred select troops that defended Sparta from Persia, those amazingly skilled super warriors. No, all these three hundred men had to do was break jars and yell, which does not take great military finesse. I can break jars and yell. You can break jars and yell. My ninety year old grandmother can break jars and yell. This is not "the few and the proud." The focus is on the fact that the LORD is able to save whether by few or by many. This is the story of how Gideon and the three hundred men took on the vast hordes of the Midianites. The number of men involved did not serve any great function. Gideon could have done it with little boys, dogs, and grandmothers. The emphasis is on God's power. The LORD uses faithless people, the LORD uses few people, and the LORD uses unconventional methods to save His people-all for His own glory.
After that long delay, we get another delay before the climactic battle. The LORD went to Gideon reassuring him that He was with him and has given him the camp. Next, the LORD took into account Gideon's fear (which is an understandable fear—he only has three hundred men!). Notice that this time, Gideon did not ask for a sign, there are no fleeces here. The LORD just gave him reassurance and a sign.
The LORD commanded Gideon to go down into the camp to see what he would see and hear what he would hear. The LORD even allows Gideon to take along Purah, his armor-bearer, to keep him company and make him less afraid. God demands us to be strong and courageous, but He makes provision for our human weaknesses. He understands that we are weak and dOUbting people, so He does give comfort and assurance, just as Jesus did to Thomas, but how much more blessed are those who believe and trust without seeing!
Gideon and Purah were furtively sneaking around the camp, trying not to get caught, wondering what God would show them. And in verse l3, . behold, he heard one Midianite private telling another soldier his dream. Notice how many times "behold" appears in verse 13. It was a strange dream involving a cake of barley bread completely smashing into the Midianite camp and destroying it. The other solider instantly answered, "Oh, this is none other than Gideon and he is going to defeat us." How did he know that? It was not like all of the Midianites were quaking in their boots because of Gideon's small army. They were probably a laughingstock. However, these two Midianites accepted God's revelation about Gideon right away. They did not ask for another dream or a second opinion. They did not lay out a fleece. They took God's revelation as gospel a lot quicker than Gideon did. These two pagans instantly realized that this was a sign from the LORD and instantly believed it. It is a sad commentary on Gideon's doubt-that a pagan should believe God's word quicker than an Israelite!
After hearing this dream, Gideon worshiped God and returned to the camp. There, he instructed his army, making his famous jar, torch, and trumpet plan. But notice what he adds. No longer is this a sword for the LORD. It is now "A sword for the LORD and for Gideon." Maybe he liked the way the phrase sounded when the Midianite feared "the sword of Gideon" in verse 14. But what happened to all God's cautioning about boasting in verse 2? This implicit pride in chapter 7 will later come to the forefront in chapter 8. But now, finally, after almost 2 chapters, Gideon is looking like the man of valor that the Angel of the LORD said he was.
At last, in verses 19–22, we have the "battle." The three hundred men divided into three groups and surrounded the camp, blew their trumpets, smashed their jars, shouted, raised the torches, and cried out "a sword for the LORD and for Gideon." Notice that none of the Israelites actually had swords. Midian did. And that is exactly what happened. The LORD caused the Midianites to turn on each other. Those who were not killed began to flee.
Gideon called out reinforcements to chase the retreating Midianites. Gideon's call for reinforcements was not a negative thing. God proved His might by using only a few men in the battle itself. Gideon and his reinforcements from Ephraim captured and killed Oreb and Zeeb, the two princes of Midian. They carried their heads to Gideon as trophies.
At this point we are ready for "Then the land had peace for whatever amount of years," to end Gideon's story. But that did not come. What happened was a surprising return to conflict. First, in chapter 8:1, came a tribal conflict. The tribe ofEphraim was upset that Gideon had not called them during the original mustering in chapter 6:34–35. Gideon pointed out that Ephraim one-upped Gideon by killing the two princes. Ephraim seemed to be appeased. But Gideon was not. His little speech in verse 2–3 at first seems diplomatic and humble. However, in light of his actions in verses 4 and following, we see that it was not humble at all, it is egotistical. Ephraim got to take the glory by killing the two princes. Gideon needed to get even. The only solution for his damaged ego was his obsession to kill the two kings that got away- Zebah and Zalmunna. Although his men were worn out, he kept pursuing. He asked the people of Succoth and of Penuel to feed him and his men. Succoth and Penuel both refused to help Gideon. Gideon promised vengeance when he returned. Notice in verse 5 of chapter 8, he said "I am pursuing," instead of "we." The LORD who was so important in chapter 7 is all but gone in this chapter. Notice how many times chapter 8 refers to "he" not "they." It is all about Gideon now. It is no longer a "sword for the LORD and for Gideon," now it has gone all the way to a sword for Gideon and his family's honor. The battle descriptions do not mention the LORD at all. Gideon was acting basically on his own now.
In verses 10–12, Gideon caught up with the fleeing Midianites and captured Zebah and Zalmunna. He captured a young man from Succoth and made him give Gideon the names of all the seventy-seven officials and elders from the city of Succoth. Then, returning to Succoth, Gideon whipped the seventy-seven men with thorns and briers and taught them a lesson, as he had promised he would. Finally, he tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city.
After wrecking vengeance on the two cities, Gideon had a little chat with Zebah and Zalmunna. They had killed some relatives ofbis. As revenge, Gideon decided to let Jether, his firstborn son, kill the two kings. But Jether was afraid. In Jether, we see the fearful Gideon from chapter 6, afraid and unable to act because offear. This is directly contrasted to Gideon, who is no longer afraid to kill out of anger and vengeance. He killed them both and then took the marks of kingsbip from their camels for himself.
Gideon was now acting like a king. taking vengeance and power into his own hands. He judged and punished cities for refusing to help him. So, it should come as no surprise when in verse 22, the people asked him to be their king saying, ''For you have saved us." What happened to the LORD in this passage? Gideon. and the people with him, completely forgot about the LORD's hand in all of this. Gideon began to be very proud and acted like a king, and the people followed right along with it.
So often, we fall into the same traps. Charismatic and dynamic pastors and teachers are of course not sinful or wrong. But many times, we focus so much on them, almost worshipping them, like Israel did Gideon. We always are running evangelism programs "for the LORD (and for Pastor ~." We fail to see it when they stumble in pride, and often, we fall right down with them.
Maybe you find yourself in Gideon's category-you are the charismatic leader who everyone loves. We are always happy to serve the LORD but also want to bring some glory to ourselves. This is especially tempting for pastors, youth group leaders, and other leaders in the church. It is only natural, only human for us to want to get recognition for all the work we do for the kingdom. We want to be popular. Why do you really show up to church thirty minutes early? Are you so excited to be there or do you want to be seen? Why do you always volunteer to lead the group in prayer? Is it because you love prayer and the communion of saints or because you want your eloquence to be adored and your piety to be praised? Why do you lead your church's youth group? Is it because you have a heart for the youth or do you want to be popular among the kids?
Many us fmd ourselves in the chapter 6 category. We are timid, plagued by fear, shy. We look to those people who we think are in the "chapter 7 category"eloquent, confident, witty, popular, and dynamic leaders in the church and think that that must be what a true servant of Jesus is like. However, as will be evidenced in Judges 8, these "great people" struggle tremendously with sin, too. The application is not that "Gideon got the point, he changed, now you change!" Gideon's subtle pride by adding a "sword for Gideon" to the LORD's arsenal is just the begintrening. In chapters 7 and 8, Gideon is even more problematic than the doubting Gideon of chapter 6. So, whether you happen to be a "Chapter 6 Gideon" or a "Chapter 7 Gideon," you have to be careful in whom you put your trust. We must not just put our trust in "chapter 7" leaders, like RC Sproul, John Piper, or Allistair Begg. They need the gospel just as much as we do. We need a Savior dramatically different than Gideon. Gideon could not save the people. When he could have led the people to renewed worship and service of God, he fell right into the sin of pride.
The major point in this passage (and throughout the book of Judges) is this: Salvation is of the LORD. Multiple times in this passage (chapter 7 verses 2, 7, 14, 15, 20, 22) we are told that it is the LORD's doing, not Gideon's, that is the salvation of Israel. We are not responsible for our salvation. Again and again in the book ofJudges (and again and again in our lives), we see our utter failure at saving ourselves. After every victory, if left to ourselves, we fall right back into sin, right back into idolatry, right back into whoring after other gods. We are totally depraved, lost in our sin and misery, groaning in our sin-induced suffering. But God is faithful to His covenant, He is faithful to save us. He is even faithful to punish us—He uses our circumstances to bring us back to Him, just as He used Midian to punish Israel. And He delivers us from our sins.
However, we are often tempted to give ourselves the glroy for our salvation. "I struggled with smoking, with drinking, but through the power of positive thinking and the help of AA, I quit." But God makes it very clear that we are not responsiblefor our salvation. If we are left to ourselves, we fall flat on our faces, back into the same sins that soeasily entangle and ensnare us. Salvation is of the LORD and ofthe LORD alone. So trust in Him alone. He gave us the ultimate salvation in Jesus Christ. Christcame down from heaven to tabernacle with us here on earth, in the ultimate enemy territory. He came down to us not with an army of thrity-two thousand, not with an army of ten thousand, not even with an army of three hundred. He came alone. Jesus left the glories of heaven to save us. And we cannot claim any credit for our own salvation. It is all of Christ. He bore all our sins (we no longer bear any sins, we are justified) and He gave us all of His righteousness (we have none of our own). We cannot take any credit for this. Rather, we must give all the glory to Christ and live a life ofthanksgiving and gratitude to Christ. This should fill us with a sense of awe—I did nothing on my own, I was blind, lost, and totally depraved. Jesus came to me, undeserving as I was and gave me such a great salvation. Praise God!
Lesson 8: Points to Ponder
1. How do the two names "Gideon" and Jerubbaal" suggest two different personalities? Is it significant that the author begins this chapter using the name Jerubbaal?
2. What do you think was going on in Gideon's mind as more and more of his volunteers went home?
3. Has God ever given you encouragement to perform as task through a sign He has given?
4. Do unchurched people sometimes understand some of God's basic truths better than some believers?
5. What is symbolized by the instruments carried by Gideon's men—trumpets, lamps, and jugs?
6. Give examples of times when people have taken credit for doing the work God gave them the ability to do. How can we avoid this?
7. Can you give examples of how internal struggles amongst God's people have harmed the work of His kingdom?