The Midianites

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Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are a good and faithful God. We thank you for speaking to us through your word, and we ask that you would speak to us now as we turn our attention to it. In Jesus’ name, Amen

G’day, it’s good to be back with you tonight. And we’re back judges, and picking up from where we left off a couple of weeks ago, we’re looking at Gideon part II… Judges 7 and 8.

I think you’ll agree that Gideon’s story is one of the most vivid in the whole book of Judges. With 300 men Gideon defeats a vast army of 135,000 – enough soldiers to fill the stadiums of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough football clubs! And besides the sheer numbers there’s all the drama of sending the soldiers away and the clever tactics Gideon uses to terrify the Midianites. And then there’s the sting in the tail when Gideon is confronted with ungrateful Ephraim and the unhelpful border towns.

It’s truly a remarkable story and it’s a lesson for us. But the question we’re asking tonight is: ‘what is the lesson and how are we supposed to respond to it?’ Should we all strap on our armour and go out and fight against God’s enemies? Or should we learn to drink water like Gideon’s men, lapping it like a dog rather than kneeling down to drink? Is there a subtle lesson about vigilance? Or is this about keeping the number of workers small? What is this all about?

To answer that question it will help us to go back to the framework set out in chapter two. I’m sure you’ll remember how the author tells us in advance how to understand the action in Judges.
Let me briefly remind you what it says. Israel was caught in a vicious cycle. They turn aside to worship other gods. So God brings punishment on them and they suffer. But when his people suffer God hears their groaning and has compassion and raises up a rescuer to save them. The rescuer saves and rules or judges them. But soon enough Israel returns to her sinful ways only worse. And so God brings another round of punishment… and so it goes. People turn away, God punishes, people suffer, God has mercy and rescues, people turn back, people then turn away again, God punishes, etc. etc.

The pattern is clear, and the implications are clear too – God expects undiluted worship for himself – he will not put up with his people giving glory to another. Their sin and his love and mercy create a bind that results in this cycle of rebellion and judgement and rescue. So from chapter two to seven, for five chapters of Judges the relentless repetition of Israel’s sin and punishment and God’s mercy makes the point abundantly clear – Israel can not stop sinning, and God is remarkably patient and merciful to save.

Now as well as making that main point clear, the sheer repetition of this pattern draws our attention to the things that break the pattern. The first judge Othniel was a bit of a non-entity, the all American hero who fit the pattern precisely. And there are lots of other judges who fit the pattern. But the judges who get their story told in detail are the ones who’re different from the pattern in some way. Ehud: he was a left handed assassin; Deborah was a woman; Jepthah the son of a prostitute and Samson a wild man who couldn’t resist foreign women. The ways in which the judges don’t fit the pattern fill out the picture so we can better understand what God is doing and what He’s like.

So to understand Gideon we need to ask how is he different to the pattern of chapter two? And the answer is there’s quite a lot that’s unusual about Gideon. Last week we heard his calling was unusual – he was worried that he wasn’t strong enough to rescue Israel – God had to convince him that He really was with him, and He really would help him to defeat his enemies. This chapter that theme of Gideon’s weakness is magnified dramatically. In fact weakness becomes the defining feature of Gideon’s time as a judge throughout chapter seven.

Look at verse two of chapter seven:

2The LORD said to Gideon, "You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, 3 announce now to the people,`Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.'"

So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.

God looks at Gideon’s army and he say’s ‘you‘ve too many men’. Too many men? The Midianites were like a swarm of locusts – so many they were impossible to count. Verse 12 says the Midianites were as thick as locusts. There were enormous numbers of them: they covered the land because there were just so many of them. Gideon’s army were outnumbered more than four to one.

But God says ‘you’ve too many men’. Gideon’s army is weak but its weakness isn’t obvious enough, God wanted there to be no mistake. Israel would have nothing to boast about except for God’s power and God’s glory.

So Gideon sends away all the blokes who’re afraid and 32,000 becomes 10,000. Surely now no one could say Israel won by their own strength? But God isn’t satisfied with that, he wants to make it really, really obvious. Look at verse 4:

4 But the LORD said to Gideon, "There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them out for you there. If I say,`This one shall go with you,' he shall go; but if I say,`This one shall not go with you,' he shall not go." 5 So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink." 6 Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. 7The LORD said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place."

300 men stay and nearly 10, 000 are sent away. Why? Well it’s tempting to think that the way they drank said something about the men – perhaps the 300 were somehow more vigilant, lapping like a dog kept them upright and ready to defend themselves, while those who knelt down were somehow ill-disciplined or sloppy. But we’ve no basis for that sort of judgement. The point is not that God chose the best, but that God chose the fewest, the weakest group. 300 men could never match 135,000, no matter how good they were.

God chooses the weaker group, precisely because they’re weak, precisely because there is absolutely no way anyone could make the mistake that these men were able to defeat the Midianite hoards.

God is making a point, and He’s going to great lengths to make it. He doesn’t want anyone to miss this point. God is their rescuer. There should be no mistake, Israel won’t defeat Midian because they’re powerful, or vigilant or anything else about them. They’ll defeat Midian only because God has delivered Midian into their hands.

And so it turns out. Look at verse 16:

16Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside. 17 "Watch me," he told them. "Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. 18 When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout,`For the LORD and for Gideon.'" 19 Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. 20 The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, "A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!" 21 While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled. 22 When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the LORD caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords.

The text is clear: Gideon and his men never go down into the camp and fight. They stand outside the camp and God turns the Midianites into a quivering mess. Like a herd of cattle stampeding to their own death, the Midianites are so gripped by fear that they kill each other! So, weakened by fear, and damaged by their own hand, the almighty Midianite army flee before lowly Israel. The victory has already been won, the Lord has routed them in their camp; all that remains is make sure they can’t retreat to Midian and regroup and come back stronger next year. So the surrounding Israelite tribes come out and pick Midian off as they flee.

And so God gives Midian into the hands of the weak. And no one could be mistaken. This wasn’t Gideon’s victory. It wasn’t Gideon’s clever tactical ploy with the jars and the lanterns, nor was it his choice of superior soldiers. It was God’s work that won the victory. No one could say otherwise.

Except, of course, they did. And here we see the pattern broken again in chapter eight as first Ephraim and then the border towns of Succoth and Peniel fail to see that the glory belongs to the Lord.

So Ephraim first. Ephraim clearly believed that Gideon’s army had won great glory, glory which they wanted for themselves. Have a look at chapter 8 verse 1 – 3.

1 Now the Ephraimites asked Gideon, "Why have you treated us like this? Why didn't you call us when you went to fight Midian?" And they criticised him sharply. 2 But he answered them, "What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren't the gleanings of Ephraim's grapes better than the full grape harvest of Abiezer? 3 God gave Oreb and Zeeb, the Midianite leaders, into your hands. What was I able to do compared to you?" At this, their resentment against him subsided.

Do you see the problem here? Ephraim is jealous of Gideon and the tribes who fought with him. And why are they jealous? Because Gideon hogged all the glory! When Gideon says: ‘you’ve won more glory than I have’ they’re satisfied. Can you see how back to front this is? They’ve been oppressed and terrorised and God’s deliverance has finally come. But they didn’t care that God had delivered them from their enemies. They weren’t interested in giving God glory. All they could see was their own reputation. How could Gideon treat them like this? Why would he leave them out when there was glory to be won?

Why? Because God told him to that’s why. And God told him to precisely because they wanted to glory in their own achievements, but God wanted to keep the glory for Himself.

They’re way out of line and so is Gideon. He doesn’t correct them, he doesn’t point out that he doesn’t deserve glory. His is a politician’s answer, deflecting the problem, but not dealing with it. And so the seeds are sown for both Gideon’s downfall, which we see later on in the chapter, and for Ephraim’s humiliation, which you can read about in chapter 12.

God was doing a great work of salvation and he went to great pains to make sure that no one could be mistaken – it was God who was rescuing Israel and the glory belonged to him and him alone. Well Ephraim (and it seems, Gideon) wanted to take some of the glory for themselves. Big mistake. But the sad thing is that this isn’t the worst of it, the border towns of Succoth and Peniel were even further out of line.

Look at 8:4:

4Gideon and his three hundred men, exhausted yet keeping up the pursuit, came to the Jordan and crossed it. 5 He said to the men of Succoth, "Give my troops some bread; they are worn out, and I am still pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian." 6 But the officials of Succoth said, "Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?" 7 Then Gideon replied, "Just for that, when the LORD has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers." 8 From there he went up to Peniel and made the same request of them, but they answered as the men of Succoth had. 9 So he said to the men of Peniel, "When I return in triumph, I will tear down this tower."

God was rescuing Israel, but these two towns, Succoth and Peniel, well they weren’t so sure. And it’s easy to sympathise with them: They lived East of the Jordan, practically in Midian, with no river crossing and no protection from their enemies. They’ve been subject to these marauding hoards for seven long years. They know what the Midianites are capable of, they’ve suffered and where was Gideon to help them?

And what does Gideon expect to happen when he and his 300 men catch up with the 15,000 Midianite swordsmen on their own turf?

It sounds reasonable doesn’t it? But God has been at pains to show that He’s saving Israel. They should have seen it. Didn’t they just see 15,000 troops flee across the border? Hadn’t 135,000 gone the other way? What did they think happened to the other 120,000? And why were 15,000 men running from only 300?

This could only be God’s deliverance, that’s why God had set it up this way. God was rescuing Israel by Gideon’s hand. And if God had enabled 300 to defeat 135,000 he could certainly enable them to polish off the 15,000 who remained.

So these two towns misread the situation completely. And by refusing to help God’s deliverers, they end up helping God’s enemies. They delay Gideon’s pursuit and force him to go begging for bread. It’s no surprise that when Gideon’s men finished the mission that the Lord had sent them on – because they were always going to win, the Lord fought for them, he gave them victory – it’s no surprise that when they’d finished they came back and they punished the towns who stood in the way of God’s work, who worked for God’s enemies instead of his rescuers. So Succoth and Peniel miss out on God’s deliverance and experience God anger instead, because they chose to side with God’s enemies instead of God.

Well, that’s the story. Let’s draw some conclusions. Paying attention to the details, we’re reminded that God saves: God uses the weak to destroy the strong to make his power clear. And we’re reminded too that a concern for our own glory isn’t compatible with God’s concern for his glory – we can end up like Ephraim trying to steal God’s glory for ourselves. And worse we see that we can end up working against God and totally missing what he’s doing.

So how does this apply to us? Our context is different to Gideon’s: we live on the other side of the cross and resurrection. God’s purposes in the world are no longer centred on a theocracy in the Middle East; God has revealed his world wide rule in Jesus. The great judge and saviour has tackled the greatest enemies – sin, death and the devil – and won a great victory for us.

And those who look for glamour and glory will look straight past God’s king, because like Gideon he came in weakness, without majesty and pomp. And his victory came in the form of a humiliating death on a cross. And his work in the world continues to look like weakness and there is little glory for us in joining in with it. As Paul says in 2 Cor 4 the gospel is a great treasure but it comes in jars of clay – us, God’s weak and feeble servants – to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.

So, in our day and age the church looks it’s on the way out, that Christianity is in it’s death-throws. Here in Newcastle and Gateshead the churches have been shrinking and closing for decades. If we didn’t know otherwise we could be fooled into thinking that Christianity is dying a slow death.

But we do know otherwise. God continues to work today through his gospel. He continues to win great victories as he bring the dead back to life by the sound of his gospel. Do you believe that? Do you believe that God can work through us – feeble and fallible though we are – to win people for him, to win glory and honour for his name? Do you believe that this church can continue to grow, could double or treble as God works in us to win people for himself? Do you believe that as we stand here week by week and proclaim the gospel that God will work through us so that people will be saved? I hope you do because that’s why we’re here – not like Gideon to raise a sword and strike down our enemies, but to raise our voices and proclaim God’s word of salvation. God is present and active among us by his word and by his spirit. He has already won the victory and he invites us to join in his great work of rescuing and saving so that his name will be glorified.

So let me ask you: are you joining with God and working for His glory, or are you distracted by thoughts of your own glory, or worse, sitting on the sidelines content to criticise and condemn those who are doing the work? Make no mistake: God is working here and now. He’s passionate for his glory and he’s committed to gaining glory by rescuing sinners from judgement. And he uses us in our weakness with all our faults to do it. So don’t be afraid to get involved in his work, to speak for him and to work for his glory, because that is precisely what he calls us to.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father we praise you for your great salvation. We praise you for rescuing Israel so faithfully when they continually went astray, and we praise you for rescuing us, though we continue to go astray. We pray that you will strengthen us to serve you and give us a passion for your glory and a confidence in your power that leads us to faithfully share your gospel of salvation… And we ask that you would work through us to bring glory and honour to your name, and to rescue many people from judgement through faith in Jesus Christ, in his name we pray. Amen.

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