Bible Study on the Book of Judges Lesson 9: A Tragic Ending to the Story of Gideon

Gideon had come a long way since Judges 6:11. When we first met him, he was a timid Israelite threshing his grain in a winepress for fear of the Midianites. When we last left him in Judges 8, he was an angry man killing Zebah and Zalmunna, the two Midianite princes, and destroying two Israelite towns out of vengeance. Yes, Gideon had come a long way, but were all these changes for the better?
As a result of his glorious deliverance, the men of Israel asked him to be king over them. Wait. Gideon’s deliverance of Israel? God had been the one who delivered Israel. It seems that the men of Israel had forgotten that little detail. When they asked Gideon to be king in verse 22, the reason they gave was “for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Not “God has saved us through you” or even “God and you have saved us,” but “you, Gideon, have saved us.”

Looking back over the story of Gideon, we see the downward spiral of his life. In Judges 6:15, Gideon was incredulous when the LORD asked him to be the deliverer. He asked “How can I save Israel,” citing his weakness as a reason for God to choose someone else. But the LORD promised to be with Gideon. Gideon understood this in 6:36, when he said to the LORD, “if you will save Israel by my hand.” By Judges 7, Gideon instructed his army to shout “a sword for the LORD and for Gideon”; by his actions in Judges 8, however, Gideon had accepted full responsibility for the deliverance. So the Israelites came to him and asked Gideon to start a dynasty of kings.

In verse 23, Gideon gave his answer. “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” When we first read this answer, we feel the urge to cheer. However, although Gideon’s answer seems orthodox, he went on to act exactly as if he had said “yes” instead of “no.” His rejection of the kingship turns into an acceptance, veiled under the guise of religious orthodoxy. Gideon said the right thing, but his actions spoke louder than his words.                       

The first evidence of Gideon’s desire to be king is hinted at in Judges 8:21, when he killed Zebah and Zalmunna. After Gideon slew them, he took the crescent ornaments from the necks of their camels for himself. Dr. Iain Duguid points out that these crescent ornaments were marks of kingship. Throughout Judges 8, Gideon acted as if he were a king, judging cities that did not help him and slaying kings out of personal vengeance. Gideon went on to make kingly demands of the Israelites. He commanded them to give him the earrings from their spoil. He took to himself many wives and concubines, which was generally considered the behavior of pagan kings. Most interestingly, he named his son Abimelech (8:31) which means “my father is king.” Whatever happened to Gideon saying “I will not rule over you;” whatever happened to him refusing to be king?

Gideon seems to be very inconsistent. I can remember reading this chapter and being very disappointed. I had always looked at Gideon as a great hero of the faith, a role model, but this chapter proved that he was just a normal human, full of sin. Even though he refused the kingship, he most certainly hankered after it (as is evidenced in the naming of his son) and acted as de facto king of Israel.
Dr. Dale Ralph Davis points out that this is the struggle of every Christian. We all struggle to make our practice as good as our theology. He states “It is ever our danger that after being used of God in some way, we mouth humility but practice pride. We may know occasions of the Spirit’s power and yet lack the Spirit’s wisdom.” Doing work for the kingdom is a wonderful thing, but it can easily lead to pride.

Right now, I am leading a church Bible study on (of all things) humility. I enjoy teaching it, I enjoy seeing what I say take hold in my listeners’ minds, and I enjoy seeing the spark of change in their eyes. But even while leading this study on humility, I see great pride working itself into my heart. I am proud of what I do, proud of the authority that I have in leading. The greatest struggle with teachers, pastors, youth group leaders, and other church volunteers comes not when they fail but when they succeed. When the Holy Spirit works through them mightily and they experience success, the temptation is to look on it and, like Gideon, see it as something that they have done. They are tempted to look on it in pride, like Nebuchadnezzar when he said “Is this not the great Babylon which I have built.” We pray to the LORD faithfully and depend on Him alone during times of hardship and trial, but when the profitable harvest comes, we neglect to thank Him, we forget that all the increase came from Him.

All Christians struggle with inconsistency. We may know the Bible backwards and forwards, we may have memorized a catechism or two and learned our systematic theology, we can spout of theological terms and definitions until we are blue in the face, but when it comes to living out our faith, we fail miserably. This hurts our witness tremendously. When we talk to our non-Christian friends and co-workers, we may be able to say all the right things and present blindingly brilliant theological arguments, but if we do not live it out, it is all worthless. Actions do speak louder than words. In 1 Peter 2:12, Peter points out that if we live out our faith and behave as Christians, unbelievers will see our good conduct and that will lead them to glorify God and, through the Holy Spirit, can lead them to Christ. There is a stereotype of Reformed and Presbyterian folks that we just sit around on our pews all day arguing the finer points of theology, always focusing on what Berkhof or Bavinck would say, and we stay so busy with our intellectual pursuits that we never get out to actually do anything.

Do not get me wrong, having a strong foundation in theology and understanding what the Bible actually says is surely important. The book of Acts commends the Berean church for diligently searching the Scriptures and for knowing their doctrines. Peter warns us not to be carelessly tossed around by every “wind of doctrine” (i.e., not being carried away by every new and fashionable doctrine that comes along, even if it is heretical) and the only way to do that is to be firmly grounded in the Scriptures. However, if we would get up off our pews once in a while to engage in service, if we would live out our faith instead of just having a head knowledge, the world would stand up and take notice. You might be the picture of a perfect Christian on Sunday at church, but how is your behavior in the workplace, at school, while hanging out with your friends? Can people tell the difference between you and non-Christians? Or does your behavior, like Gideon’s, not match up with your words? The Spirit of Christ dwelling in us should make a radical change in the way that we live. Romans 12:2 calls us to not be conformed to the world but to offer up ourselves as living sacrifices, to radically serve God in our daily lives. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that in Christ, we are new creatures. If we are Christians, we had best start living like it!

As if it were not bad enough that Gideon was acting like a king, his first act as de facto king takes us from bad to worse. In verse 24, Gideon made a request. He asked the Israelites to give him all of the golden earrings from their spoil. Gideon took all of the golden earrings plus all of the plunder he personally had taken from the kings, tossed them into the fire, and fashioned an ephod. This is frighteningly similar to Exodus 32, where Aaron collected all the golden earrings from the children of Israel, tossed them into a fire and out came a golden calf (or that was the story Aaron told). It seems that in the Bible, earrings have an unusual tendency to hop into flames and pop out as idols. Gideon set the ephod up in Ophrah, his home town, and it became an idol for all the people of Israel. This idol worship became a snare to Gideon and his family. What a tragedy. The story of Gideon began with Gideon tearing down the Baals and Asherah in Ophrah (Judges 6:28-35) and ended with him setting up an idolatrous ephod in Ophrah, leading the children of Israel back into the idolatry that he saved them from, the idolatry that got them into trouble in the first place.

An ephod was a sleeveless tunic that the high priest wore over his other garments. It was made of costly and colorful materials. Attached to the ephod was a breastplate in which twelve precious stones (one for each of the twelve tribes) were set in four rows. The ephod was associated with discerning the will of God, for on the ephod was a special pocket for the Urim and Thummin, the stones that the high priest sometimes used to determine God’s will (see 1 Samuel 23:9-12 or 1 Samuel 30:7-8).

It seems that Gideon’s action in making an ephod was meant to make direct conversation with the LORD easier. Instead of travelling to the tabernacle, the Israelites could just come to Orphah and ask Gideon, who, with his ephod, would serve as a channel between them and God. Gideon, who was once himself so uncertain about the will of God that he put out a fleece, now wants to discern it by means of the ephod for all who come to him.

Gideon’s motives could have been pure. He just wanted to follow God’s will and his ephod was a way of assuring that he was doing the right thing. The problem is that Gideon wanted more than what God had given. He wanted to do a right thing—to worship God—but he wanted to do it in a way contrary to what God had commanded. No matter how sincere Gideon may have thought he was, he was totally wrong because God had commanded that the worship of Him be done through the Levitical priesthood.

Today, we often fall into the same pit that Gideon and Israel did with Gideon’s ephod. We greatly desire to serve God, to worship Him, and to grow closer to Him. But we are not happy with doing it in the way He commanded us. We want always to be on a spiritual high, always to have our emotions overflowing. So we add things to our worship services, like drama, liturgical dances, and other goofy things that are clearly not commanded in the Scriptures. We thrive on huge Christian conferences and other Christian events that give us a spiritual high, and end up subtly ignoring His given means of grace.

Dr. Dale Ralph Davis puts it this way: “We are not content merely to walk obediently to the Scriptures, trusting God’s providence and goodness to direct us in the proper path. No, we must have more: a specific, direct word from God about what we should do in our particular problem.” We want the Holy Spirit to directly speak to us, we want emotion-filled revivals. We neglect the ways in which God has commanded us to worship Him, the ways in which He commanded us to divine His will. Prayer, the sacraments, and corporate worship fall by the wayside as we emphasize conferences, retreats, and alternate ways of worship. Of course, emotion is not bad, conferences are not bad. Christian retreats are not idolatry. But, we must be careful to not ignore the rich, normal means of grace that God has provided. We must not neglect to read the Scriptures, spend time in prayer, delight in the sacraments, and worship as a corporate body. Sometimes these things seem boring and humdrum. Other forms of worship can become to us like Gideon’s ephod, more flashy and exciting. But it is best to stick with what God has provided for us—He knows what He is doing.

Verse 27 shows something of the nature of idolatry. The narrator does not say “all Israel worshipped the ephod” or “all Israel commit idolatry to the ephod.” Rather, he says “all Israel whored after the ephod.” This very sexual language shows the seriousness of this sin. Many times, the Bible compares our relationship with God as a marriage. If our covenant with God is a marriage, then its claims are to be strictly observed. So many times, people ask “why does the Gospel press itself on the whole of our lives?” After all, it’s only religion. Why does it have to apply to all my life? But, true religion is marital in nature. What sort of husband would brush it off if his wife kept multiple lovers? We cannot sluff off our covenant with God—it is a marriage. Our relationship with God is a holy, pure marriage. “I, the LORD, take you, my people, to be my wife.” Marriage is a powerful illustration of God’s love for His people. It also provides us a context to see how horrible our sin really is. When we sin, we are becoming prostitutes. We are breaking our marriage covenant to commit adultery with someone other than our husband. How horrible and unfaithful we are in our sin! And how gracious and loving our God is when we sin! We are horrible, prostituting wives. And we keep on doing it; we never learn our lesson. Yet our husband, God, freely forgives us and takes us back into His bosom, declaring His unending, unconditional love for us. What a gracious God we have!

Verse 28 tells us that “the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.” There was no more war, no more invaders, no more pillaging. This is the last time in the book of Judges that such a thing will occur. This is the last “rest passage” in the book. “The land enjoyed rest” was the normal ending for each judge story up until now. As I said at the beginning of this series, the book of Judges is not so much a series of repeating cycles, but a downward spiral. Israel and her judges keeps getting worse and worse. They will not serve the LORD who saves them. And, so, the people who persistently whore themselves and despise the LORD’s gift will find that that gift is withdrawn. “God’s mercy is deep but not easygoing; it is tender but will not be trampled” says Dr. Davis.

The story of Gideon ends in verses 29-25. It ends by calling him “Jerubbaal,” reminding us of his double identity—on the one side the fearful man, unable to act on his own and on the other side, the revengeful king who fights for his own glory. He is more dangerous now than he was at the beginning. His triumph at the end of his life is not the “victorious Christian life” but an abomination to the LORD. Nothing has changed. Idolatry continues. The Midianites are gone, but now Gideon is acting like a worse king. He took for himself many wives (Deuteronomy commands that kings must not take many wives). He took a Canaanite concubine from Shechem (intermarriage was also forbidden). He named his son Abimelech, meaning “my father is king,” in an attempt to establish a dynastic monarchy. So many times in the book of Judges, it explains that these things happened “when there was no king in Israel.” This would lead many people (like the Israelites in 1 Samuel 8) to think, “Oh, if only there were a king, then these horrible things would not happen.” But this passage in Judges 8 shows that when the people do get a man who acts as king, they get a disaster. The real problem is that the Israelites ignored God’s true kingship.

Once Gideon died, the people of Israel turned even further away from the LORD. They made Baal-Berith their god. Baal-Berith means “Baal, lord of the covenant.” Historically, the temple to Baal-Berith was in Shechem, the very place where the Israelites renewed the covenant under Joshua in Joshua 24, where they had declared “as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” How far they had fallen since then.

Gideon is often portrayed as a “hero of the faith,” and that he is. He is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the men of faith. How is this timid, vengeful, idolatrous man a hero? How are we to view biblical heroes? Are they best used as examples? That would work fine if we studied only the parts about Gideon leading his band of three hundred men. However, what about the parts about his many wives, his vengeance, and his idolatry? This is true of any biblical hero, even David, the “man after God’s own heart.” He was a great man, but he committed adultery, he murdered, he was full of pride.

Too often, we only think of biblical characters as models and as examples for us to follow. That is the wrong way to view the Bible, because all of the men and women found in its pages (save one) were sinners. In fact, the Bible often goes out of its way to “tar and feather” its heroes, going to great lengths to remind us that even the best heroes are totally depraved. One thing we can learn from heroes is that if God can use these flawed people, God can use you and God can use me. These people are not the true heroes of the Bible. There is only one true hero, God Himself. If God can be a hero to Gideon and David, God can be a hero to you and to me. Take hope when you are messed up (which is always—we are totally depraved). When we truly understand the mercy and grace of God shown to us in our messed up state, when we see how much He loves us in spite of all our sin, then we will have found what these heroes are teaching us: it is not about us, it is about God. That is the key to true Christian service. That is the key to living out our faith. The Bible is not just a random collection of morals and stories about individual people. It is centered on One Person.

All of history, all of the Bible is the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan. Every story, from Adam and Eve, to Gideon, to David, to Ezra, points to the ultimate deliverer and judge, Jesus Christ. He came to seek and to save and to serve those who could do nothing themselves. He came to ransom the Gideons, the people who could not save themselves. It is not about me, it is not about you, it was not about Gideon, it was not about David. It is all about Christ. When reading the Bible, do not say, “Oh, what great men they were.” Rather say, “Oh, what a great God they had, and what a great God we have.” He, in spite of all of Gideon’s foolishness, in spite of all of our doubts and fears and failings, He still won. He is still the hero, and He still loves us.

Lesson 9: Points to Ponder

1. Can you cite a time when you were in danger of becoming proud of your service to God?
2. Can you give an example of when your actions spoke louder than your words?
3. Is a good, strong foundation in theology and the Bible necessary today? Why or why not? How can it best be used to advance the Kingdom of God?
4. In what way was Gideon acting like a self-appointed king and in what way did he act like a self-appointed priest?
5.    How can forms of worship become like Gideon’s ephod? How does God demand that He be worshiped? Do we ever have the right to “improve” on God’s revealed will?
6.    How is our relationship with God like a marriage? How should that affect the way that we conduct ourselves in everyday life?
7.    How can God use you to be a true hero of faith? When God does use you, who should receive all the glory?

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