Tonight in our studies in the book of Judges we come to chapter 6 and the account of Gideon. But why study all these Old Testament narratives, some of which are pretty gruesome – not least chapters 4 and 5 about the period under Deborah. Well, as we heard in our New Testament reading
“everything that was written in the past [referring to the Old Testament and so including Judges] was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15.4).
So this account of Gideon should help us “endure” when times are difficult and encourage us when tempted to be discouraged. And it should give us hope in a world where millions are without hope. So much by way of introduction.
My headings tonight are, first, THE CONTEXT; secondly, PRAYER ANSWERED; thirdly, GIDEON – USED BY GOD; fourthly, GIDEON – TRAINED BY GOD and finally,GIDEON – ASSURED BY GOD.
So, first, THE CONTEXT
After the time of Deborah and Barak, we read in the last verse of chapter 5 – verse 31: “The land had peace for forty years.” But then, the same old story – chapter 6 begins: “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD.” What happened next? Verse 1 tells us: “for seven years he [the LORD] gave them into the hands of the Midianites.” Verses 2-5 tell us how in the growing season vast hoards of Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern people invaded Israel with their secret weapon - “the camel” (verse 5). Its hump (for water storage) meant these eastern people could now have expeditions far away from home and stay away. So when they invaded, the Israelites had to flee and stay in the rocky hills or mountains. For these enemies came for the duration to steal or destroy the Israelite’s crops, sheep, cattle and donkeys. Verse 5 says: “They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it.” So the Israelite economy ground to a halt – what’s new? Verse 6 says: “Midian so impoverished the Israelites.” But in desperation, at last they saw sense –
“they cried out to the LORD for help” (v 6).
Who feels like that tonight? For some reason you are in a desperate situation. Well, learn from these Israelites and “cry to the Lord for help.” And there are still lessons here for nations as in Old Testament times. Even in my life time, our own nation learnt that lesson.
In May 1940 Britain was desperate. Hitler had gained absolute power in Germany and had invaded Poland and gone through Norway, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium. Next the great French Army was humiliated in only 40 days. And nearly half a million British and French troops were trapped on the beaches by the tiny harbour of Dunkirk in France. As an army, they were facing annihilation through death or capture. That would have meant certain victory for Hitler and the invasion and Nazi control of Britain. That was the situation on 24 May 1940 when the churches of Britain called for a national day of prayer. Two days later on 26 May the nation gathered to pray; and churches were packed. Amazingly Hitler had ordered his armies to halt and at seven o’clock thatevening, the British gave a critical order to attempt an evacuation of Dunkirk. Tiny boats and private dinghies were sent across the dangerous English Channel to rescue as many men as possible before the arrival of the Germans. But Hitler’s armies remained largely in place not only on the 24th, 25th and 26th, but, incredibly, until early June. Many say, “no one knows why. “Believers say, “they do know why.” God was in control and answering prayer. So that brings us
Secondly, to PRAYER ANSWERED
For God answered the prayers of Gideon’s contemporaries very differently to the way he answered those prayers of British people in May 1940. He answered by doing two things. Look at verse 7:
“When the Israelites cried to the LORD because of Midian, he sent them a prophet, who said, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. I said to you, 'I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.' But you have not listened to me."
So first he sent a prophet with a message in answer to prayer. To many in Israel this would have seemed like sending a driving instructor after you’re in a car crash, when all you want is to get the car seen to and get home. But God knows his people better than they know themselves. And if someone is in a crash because of bad driving, and the car can legally be driven home, some basic driving instruction could be a wise thing. Certainly these Israelites needed to taught the basics again.
They needed to be reminded that our God, the God of the Bible, is a good God wanting to help. Their history had proved that. So they needed to listen to him and not the Amorite Baals that led to all sorts of evils including child sacrifice. That was the message of the prophet. The conclusion was obvious – namely, because the people had not “listened to” God but had turned to the Baals, they had been experiencing God’s judgment at the hand of the Midianites.
What you sow you reap. And who needs to hear that today? If you sow greed, don’t be surprised if, at some point, you face a financial crisis. If you sow sexual decadence as happened in Baal worship, don’t be surprised if sexually transmitted diseases multiply and society starts to disintegrate and the monogamous married family disintegrates. These Israelites had not listened to God’s word.
So the prophet had to teach them. Who here tonight is ignorant of God’s word as you have it in the Bible? Well, if so, join one of the small groups – like Christianity Explored. Being ignorant if you have never been taught, is one thing. But when you have an opportunity for learning vital lessons, and refuse, then you are blameworthy. And remember, it is so sensible to learn from and listen to God. For he is not only a God who brings judgment. Supremely he is a merciful God. For the Israelite’s prayer was not only answered by a prophet being sent.
Secondly, we read that the angel of the LORD came to commission the young man Gideon to be a national deliverer. Look at verse 11:
“The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites.”
When God wants to change things for our good and to stop the rot (of whatever sort it is), he normally makes use of people. He uses people for his work of salvation, here in the book of Judges and supremely, of course, in Jesus Christ. There are some often quoted words of St Theresa of Avila speaking of Christ and which are worth remembering:
“Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours”
And it is not only famous individuals God uses like Gideon and, people later, Wesley and Wilberforce, but also many unsung heroes of the faith. They have in quiet ways and in quiet corners been remarkably used by God – in their families, among their friends or where they work. They are used as they reflect Jesus Christ and share, when they can, their faith in him. We can all be so used. Well, God was going to use Gideon especially. He was going to be the next leader of the nation.
So, thirdly, GIDEON – USED BY GOD
God needed then, and still needs, people like Gideon to work for him. So what sort of person was Gideon?
First, he was someone who had a saving encounter with the living God himself. Look at verse 12
“the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon.”
The narrative, as we shall see, clearly makes an identification between this angel of the LORD and the LORD himself. Gideon was meeting with Almighty God. And remember God was, then, and is now, and ever will be, the God who is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Yes, God can use all sorts of people in his saving work. But they need an encounter with the living God. And now that encounter is to be with the risen and reigning Jesus Christ – God the Son. Who needs to have that encounter tonight? Remember Jesus Christ still says:
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11.28).
He will forgive your sins and you will receive the Holy Spirit for new life and work as you trust Christ.
Secondly, God uses people who themselves may not be perfect. Look at verse 13:
"But sir [referring to the Angel]," Gideon replied, "if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian."
Gideon’s problem was that he didn’t realize how serious was his people’s apostasy. This is why the Midianites had invaded. For God was working wonders – but in the form of judgement through the Midianites. As today, when you are living in such a God-rejecting world as parts of Western Europe, like Gideon, it is easy to think things aren’t too bad. But they were too bad, as Gideon was soon to learn. And he (like us) was in some way caught up in all the bad around
And note - Gideon’s question wasn’t answered directly. The answer came in the form of a commission. Gideon was virtually asked to stop questioning but take action. As we shall see, it was as he obeyed he discovered the answer he needed. One famous biblical scholar once said of questions about the Bible, “obedience is the best commentary”. So if you want to grow in your understanding of God and of Scripture, start to obey God. Jesus said:
“If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God” (John 7:17).
Look at verse 14:
“The LORD [note, not the angel of the LORD but the LORD] turned to him [Gideon] and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?’"
So God was using Gideon – but he was not perfect. And he can use you and me even though we are not perfect.
Thirdly, Gideon was humble. You may not be perfect but you must be humble and realize you are not perfect. God uses humble people who want to be dependent on him and to learn from him. Look at verse 15:
"’But Lord,’ Gideon asked, ‘how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.’"
Humility is a number one requirement for any worker for God. And all Gideon needed to know was that God would be with him. For all his seeming insignificance, he could rely on the Lord in anything that lay ahead. Look at verse 16:
“The LORD answered, ‘I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.’"
The presence of God is a wonderful and encouraging truth echoed throughout the Bible.
“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” (Heb 13.5-6).
That brings us …
Fourthly, to GIDEON – TRAINED BY GOD.
So how was Gideon trained for his work? Well, first, God confirmed Gideon’s call. He convinced Gideon he had actually been with God in the form of an angel. It was not just his fertile imagination. Look at verse 17:M
“Gideon replied, ‘If now I have found favour in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.’”
And you can read in verses 18-24 how God gave Gideon a sign in the form of fire consuming the food Gideon had prepared for the angel; and, verse 22, says:
“Gideon realized that it was the angel of the LORD.”
But secondly and importantly, Gideon’s basic training was by “doing”. Gideon probably agreed with all the prophet had said. But he had a blind spot. He did not realize things were too bad nor is it enough just to disapprove of serious evil. There comes a point when you must act. So God made Gideon do something for his basic training. Look at verse 25 and following:
“That same night the LORD said to him, ‘Take the second bull from your father's herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father's altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the LORD your God.’ So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the LORD told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than in the daytime. In the morning when the men of the town got up, there was Baal's altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar! They asked each other, ‘Who did this?’ When they carefully investigated, they were told, ‘Gideon son of Joash did it.’ The men of the town demanded of Joash, ‘Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal's altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.’ But Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, ‘Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.’ So that day they called Gideon "Jerub-Baal, " saying, "Let Baal contend with him," because he broke down Baal's altar.”
So Gideon now knew why God had abandoned his people to the Midianites – they were worshiping the Baals. It would seem, until now Gideon had not done much about Baal worship, even when it was (literally) on his own doorstep.
But to get this in perspective, you must remember that in these very primitive times there was no clear separation between the church (God’s people) and the state that you have in the New Testament. That’s from the distinction between God and Caesar that Jesus taught, or individuals and “the governing authority” that Paul taught. You see, it is now clear that Caesar (that is, the governing authority or the state) alone is entitled to use force. Christian people acting as Christians, therefore, may not go around smashing things up that they disagree with. But the principle remains.
Without using physical force, you still need to take action for God and his truth and standards. It is not enough just to think something bad. Of course, we are not talking about Christians complaining about everything. There are some “custard Christians” (as they are called) who get upset over trifles. “Love covers over”, says the Bible, “a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4.8). We are talking about serious problems. That great verse on love that Jesus quoted from Leviticus, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19.18) is preceded in verse 17 with these words:
“Rebuke your neighbour frankly, so that you will not share in his guilt.”
You see, it is loving to help people avoid what is seriously false or seriously wrong. Yes, Gideon “was afraid of his family” and so acted “at night rather than in the daytime”.
The first time you take a stand, you probably will be nervous. But it is amazing how God gives you the strength and how God honours you when you take such a stand.
Well, Gideon was trained by being made to take a stand for the Lord.
So finally, GIDEON – ASSURED BY GOD.
After his great act of obedience in destroying Baal’s altar, did God act immediately? No! Look at verse 33:
“Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel.”
Was Gideon shocked? Not at all. He now knows he must use his common sense to do what God has clearly called him to do. So in the last verses of our chapter you read how Gideon called together an army from the Northern tribes. But still distrusting his own judgment, he wanted confirmation from God about this new move.
And it was given him, miraculously – a wool fleece remained dry while all around was damp.
Was this wanting too much confirmation? Some say so. But other commentators like Charles Spurgeon and Dale Ralph Davis think it was reasonable. Certainly God didn’t seem mind.
So there’s Gideon. He had a personal experience of the living God. He was not perfect, but he was humble and trusted God and as he obeyed, he grew in understanding.
May we all be encouraged by Gideon and follow his example.