If the question were asked, ‘Who are the outstanding characters in the book of Judges?’ we could not fail to think of those like Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, and we would be right to do so. However, it is worth considering that maybe some of the lesser known judges, those like Tola, Jair, Ibzan and Abdon were really the strong administrators; men of whom we have only a few verses recorded, yet who carried out their responsibilities efficiently and faithfully for a total of seventy years. Yet it would seem that the Spirit of God takes far more time to tell us of those who ‘out of weakness were made strong’; men of passion and failings, gripped by doubts and fears, men whose frailties we can identify with and learn from. Gideon was just such a man.
The repetitive cycle which characterizes the book of Judges begins again as chapter 6 opens. This time the scourge used by God to bring His people to repentance was the Midianites. These were a nomadic people, having a kinship with Israel as the descendants of Abraham and Keturah, and close association also with the family of Ishmael, Gen. 37. 28; Judg. 8. 24, 26. When we consider that Abraham ‘gave all that he had unto Isaac’, Gen. 25. 5, and ‘sent away’ the remaining sons with just token gifts, we can understand a natural resentment rising to the surface as God permitted them to ‘prevail against Israel’, v. 2.
Each year, for seven years, these predatory tribes waited until the Israelites had worked the fields and produced a harvest, then, like a swarm of locusts, they ‘entered into the land to destroy it’, v. 5. It is noteworthy that the Midianites and their allies had no real interest in taking the produce of the land for themselves; their intention was simply to ‘destroy the increase of the earth’.
Remember that the harvest of the Promised Land was part of that bountiful inheritance provided by God for His chosen people. As Christians we also have a spiritual inheritance to feed upon and to enjoy. But we too, just like Israel, have enemies who will seek to rob us of the enjoyment of our inheritance. Like Midian, our adversaries have no appreciation of those things ‘which God hath prepared for them that love him’, 1 Cor. 2. 9, but their purpose is to deprive us of pleasure and benefit from our blessings in Christ.
As on previous occasions, when the effects of the Lord’s chastening became painful, they cried to Him for mercy. What did He do? He didn’t immediately reveal the deliverer whom He had been preparing, but He sent a prophet to them. In other words, He drew their attention to the word of God and reminded them of all His ways of grace and kindness to them. Yet, in spite of all this, He has to say, ‘But ye have not obeyed my voice’, v. 10. How often do we, in like manner, need the challenge of God’s word which convicts us of our offences, corrects the walk and cleanses the mind?
Having given His word time to take effect, the Lord took the next step in recovering His people, ‘there came an angel of the Lord’, v. 11. It has often been noted that this expression as used in our Old Testament suggests not one of the myriad celestial beings, but rather a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Lord Himself, a ‘theophany’. This is the second of three occasions when such an occurrence is recorded in the book of Judges and it would seem that each time the nation was in dire need of assistance.
Man of valour
The object of heaven’s attention was a young man called Gideon, apparently the youngest son of a farming family belonging to the tribe of Manasseh. When we are introduced to him, he is threshing wheat by the winepress, a seemingly innocuous activity, but which on this occasion, though hidden from the Midianites, did not go unnoticed by God! The salutation from the heavenly visitor took Gideon by surprise, ‘The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour’, v. 12. What had he done to deserve such an accolade? He had not fought a battle or led an army. All he had done was thresh a bit of wheat! But in the estimate of heaven, when weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, his activity that day would be placed alongside that of Mary in Mark chapter 14, of whom it was recorded ‘She hath done what she could’, v. 8.
It is evident from verse 13 that the words of the prophet had challenged the heart of Gideon. Now he would do what he could to salvage some of the inheritance to provide food for the people of God. Rather than use the recognized open threshing floors which would be watched closely by the Midianites, he chose the more difficult task of extracting the wheat in the confines of a winepress. Many of the Lord’s servants will appreciate the effort involved; alone, in the quiet place, away from the eyes of the world, sifting out a few handfuls of grain with which to feed the Lord’s people.
Seemingly unfazed at first by the appearance of the angel, Gideon poured out his fears and frustrations, ‘If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? … where be all his miracles? … the Lord hath forsaken us’, v. 13. The response he received was, to say the least, unexpected! ‘Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel … have not I sent thee?’ v. 14. The excuses which followed as Gideon pleaded his inadequacy are reminiscent of Moses when God spoke to him out of the bush, hence the precious promise which runs through the scriptures to servants aware of their own weakness is granted to Gideon, ‘Surely I will be with thee’, v. 16. With that promise given, excuses become irrelevant.
Still in need of further assurance, and consistent with his race, see 1 Cor. 1. 22, Gideon requested a sign, the only man in the book of Judges to do so. With patient grace the Lord consented to his request. What Gideon prepared and brought to the Lord would not have been hastily put together in a matter of minutes! It would have taken time to prepare, and what he prepared, he presented to the Lord. The word ‘presented’ is used of a priest approaching the altar or of a servant coming to a superior. Gideon’s encounter with the Lord was already beginning to bear fruit. Could we maybe learn a simple practical lesson with regard to our preparation and presentation of that which we bring to Him in worship?
What Gideon brought would not only have taken time, it would have been costly, bearing in mind that ‘Israel was greatly impoverished’, v. 6, at this time. But what Gideon brought as a gift becomes a sacrifice in the eyes of the Lord as it is consumed upon the rock used as an altar. The full realization of what had taken place gripped him v. 22, and, although the angel of the Lord had departed, Gideon still received assurance and instruction from heaven. With the promise of divine protection Gideon built an altar, one of only three in the book of Judges, and called it ‘Jehovah-shalom’, that is, ‘the Lord send peace’, as a witness to God’s promise.
Gideon may have expected that the next instruction would be to gather an army to fight the Midianites. But that would not come until matters had been dealt with nearer home. How often, when the Lord calls us to engage in service for Himself, He expects us first to start in our own locality, even, like Gideon, in our own family. Remember that the Lord Jesus gave us the example when, in Luke chapter 4, ‘He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and … went into the synagogue … and stood up for to read’, v. 16. Gideon’s directive was to deal with the idolatry in his father’s house; filial affection must take second place to the Lord’s command. He needed to be like the tribe of Levi when they carried out summary judgement upon the idolaters of the golden calf, he ‘said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children’. Deut. 33. 9.
Gideon obeyed the word of the Lord and in so doing the die was cast. Once the altar of Baal was destroyed and the grove cut down, there was no going back. He was nailing his colours to the mast and would trust in God alone for a positive response from the nation. Gideon’s name means ‘a cutter down’. If that was his name from birth, then little did his parents know of the way in which he would live up to it as a young man! I am glad that the Spirit of God has left on record that he attacked the parental idols at night, ‘because he feared his father’s household, and the men of the city’, v. 27. It is reassuring to know that great men of God were subject to the fears and emotions which grip us at times as we try to be obedient to His word in witnessing for Him.
Morning light revealed the extent of the devastation and immediate enquiry was made to find who was responsible. It did not take long to establish that ‘Gideon the son of Joash hath done this thing’, v. 29. Gideon may have wondered what the outcome would be, but God overruled and support came from an unexpected source, his own father! Joash obviously realized the weakness of his idol to withstand Gideon’s onslaught, and with words which remind us of Elijah on Mount Carmel at a later day, he defended the actions of his son.
Having declared his zeal for the Lord, Gideon was now ready to gather a fighting force to oppose the Midianites and their allies who had gathered in the valley of Jezreel. This great battleground was about to witness again, as in Barak’s day, the defeat of Israel’s foes, and in a day yet future in this locality the battle of Armageddon will announce the returning King of kings.
There are seven references to ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ in the book of Judges, and in verse 34, the Spirit came upon Gideon. He blew his trumpet and the tribes of Israel responded. For a brief moment uncertainty gripped him; the ‘if’ of doubt entered in. Once more the Lord bore patiently with His servant and responded to him in the matter of the fleece, even though the will of God had been made clear to him! How grateful we should be that our God bears with our hesitancy and gives every encouragement for us to fulfil His will for our lives.
To be continued.