Gideon may well have been disappointed with the response when he blew his trumpet in Abiezer. True it was that the first to gather to his banner were those of his own home town; men of whom he had been fearful when he threw down the altar of Baal and destroyed that idolatrous grove. But, as so often happens, when we seek to do a work for God, encouragement comes from an unexpected source: his own father, whose religion Gideon had challenged, had spoken in his defence! Now Gideon waited as the Northern tribes gathered to him.
When the Israelites entered the land, the combined fighting force of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulon and Naphtali was almost 185,000 men. In response to Gideon’s call, just 32,000 men from those tribes gathered at the well of Harod to face the Midianites who were ‘as grasshoppers for multitude’. In light of what followed it would appear that the place was well named, for Harod means ‘trembling’. Imagine the bewilderment that Gideon experienced when the Lord said to him, ‘The people that are with thee are too many’, Judg. 7. 2! All too often we forget that our God’s ways are frequently contrary to human reasoning, and yet the psalmist reminds us that ‘his way is perfect’, Ps. 18. 30.
The laws of warfare given in Deuteronomy chapter 20 as the nation was about to enter the land, made provision for those who were ‘fearful and fainthearted’ to return home. When Gideon offered this option to his hastily assembled army, 22,000 men, almost 70%, turned their backs and walked away! When this choice was first made available to His people, God knew, of course, that in the arena of conflict fear can be very contagious. We remember Israel’s first attempt to defeat Ai. After the initial counter attack in which thirty-six men of Israel were smitten, they fled, and ‘the hearts of the people melted, and became as water’, Josh. 7. 5. The ‘fear of man’ so often becomes a hindrance to the testimony and to our wholehearted involvement in the work of God and our warfare against evil.
There was, however, another good reason for the ranks to be reduced. We have to admit that at times we can become obsessed by numbers; we love to count heads! How often when considering assemblies of the Lord’s people, attendance at gospel meetings or conferences, the first thing we ask is ‘how many?’ Another factor that God takes into account is that man loves to boast in what he considers to be his achievements, the results of his own efforts. We so often fail to appreciate that anything accomplished for His glory is, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord’, Zech. 4. 6.
Left with his 10,000 men, Gideon may have thought that he faced an impossible task in hoping to defeat the Midianites. Then another communication came to him from the Lord, ‘The people are yet too many’! It is encouraging to notice that even though Gideon was witnessing the diminishing of his army, there is no word of protest or even a question asked. In chapter 6 verses 36-40, he had put God to the test and through that test he had received assurance that God would save Israel by his hand. Now when God in turn puts Gideon to the test he remembers his fleece and trusts in his God.
It would have seemed to these men a perfectly natural thing to be offered opportunity to quench their thirst before the ensuing battle. They had no idea that they also were being tried. The water may speak to us of the legitimate things of life which naturally engage our interest each day; home, family and livelihood; all perfectly genuine and rightfully demanding of our concern. The question is, however, how much of our time and attention do they occupy, and do they take priority over that which the Lord has called us to and fitted us for?
Just three hundred men passed the test! In the absence of a full scriptural explanation we can perhaps infer that those who lapped ‘as a dog lappeth’, simply scooped up water in their hands while remaining alert and ready to react should the Midianites put in an appearance. On the other hand, the 9700 who failed the test paid more attention to their own perceived needs, bowing down with their faces to the water, rather than maintaining a careful watch for any unexpected attack by the enemy. The spiritual lessons are on the surface, but so often we fail to heed the repeated injunctions given both by the Lord and in the Epistles, to ‘watch’ in all the various circumstances of life. For Gideon, less than 1% of those who originally responded to his call actually passed the test and were considered ready to face the adversary! Would we have been among the three hundred? Remember, He is constantly watching and testing us in the everyday things of life;
The required fighting force was now ready. Yet, still, the Lord will give His servant a further assurance of victory, and that from the very lips of the enemy! In Old Testament times God used dreams on a number of occasions to make known his purposes, even to ungodly men like Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar. In these examples it required a godly man to interpret. In Judges chapter 7, however, such is the sovereignty of our God that a fellow Midianite is given the ability to interpret the dream of his companion! For the benefit and assurance of Gideon, he is made privy to a conversation as, under cover of darkness, he and his servant approached the enemy camp. The dream involved a cake of barley bread causing havoc in the camp. Without hesitation, the explanation is perceived to be the forthcoming attack by Gideon and his subsequent triumph; the moral victory was already won! Barley bread in biblical times was the food of the poor. Barley was grown primarily to provide food for cattle and horses. Its value was half that of wheat, 2 Kgs. 7. 1. To portray Gideon in such terms would emphasize his total dependence upon God. He had already acknowledged this; remember his words to the angel in chapter 6, ‘My family is poor in Manasseh’, v. 15. He would need to retain that spirit in order to appreciate his own inadequacy. The apostle Paul in his time had to realize that the Lord’s strength was ‘made perfect in weakness’, 2 Cor. 12. 9. Gideon would later be included among those who ‘out of weakness were made strong’, Heb. 11. 34. Remember also how just five barley loaves provided food for a multitude when placed in the hands of the Master.
All we have seen thus far in the life of Gideon has been preparation for service, it is detailed and precise. Scripture abounds with examples of men and women who spent time, often a long time, in the ‘school of God’, before engaging in what was sometimes just a brief service. Even the Lord Jesus spent thirty preparatory years under the eye of His Father before entering into His public ministry.
Now the time for conflict had finally come, and what were the weapons of choice? Not the conventional, and expected, swords, spears and bows, but trumpets, pitchers and lamps! Our God never ceases to surprise us by constant reminders that His thoughts and ways are not the same as ours, they are far higher, Isa. 55. 8-9, and always better.
It may be that the apostle Paul had Gideon’s experience in mind when he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 4, writing of the rich and rewarding ministry committed to the servants of God, the sound of the trumpet is heard in verse 5, ‘We preach … Christ Jesus the Lord’. The light is seen in verse 6, and the pitcher, the earthen vessel, in verse 7. But the light must be allowed to shine forth, so the apostle emphasizes that ‘we preach not ourselves’. It would have been far less effective if Gideon’s men had kept their lamps hidden within the pitchers, and just blown the trumpets. Plenty of noise but no light! May we ever remember that in every sphere of witness, if anything of lasting value is to be accomplished, ‘the exceeding greatness of the power’ will always be ‘of God, and not from ourselves’, v. 7 RV.
The battle cry underlines their dependence upon the Lord. The trumpet, the pitcher and the lamp in themselves would be ineffective weapons, yet, used in obedience they become ‘the sword of the Lord’, and also of Gideon. Our responsibility is to use ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God’, Eph. 6. 17. That same word will then do its own work as applied by the Spirit to the hearers. The effect upon the enemy in Gideon’s battle was that they ‘ran, and cried, and fled’. In like manner, ‘the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds’, 2 Cor. 10. 4.
As so often happens when a victory is gained, the adversary redoubles his efforts in seeking to cause division and strife among the people of God. Not for the first time, Ephraim complains; cf. Josh. 17. 14. They had not responded when Gideon blew his trumpet to assemble the tribes, but now that the victory has been won, they want some of the glory! Gideon, with his diplomatic response, is able to take the heat out of the situation and avoid a confrontation; brethren and sisters with the ability and wisdom to do this in assembly life are invaluable!
Most of the verses in chapter 8 are taken up with the aftermath of the battle and the churlish behaviour of the men of Succoth, for which they received appropriate retribution. The Spirit of God does not dwell too long on the rather disappointing end of Gideon’s life, preferring to emphasize the exploits of the man of faith; we will follow the Spirit’s example. Suffice it to say that having refused the offer of a crown in verses 23-23, the man who began his career by vigorously opposing idolatry, is responsible for making an ephod of gold ‘which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house’, v. 27. How careful we all need to be throughout life; remember it is to elders that the warning is given concerning ‘the snare of the devil’, 1 Tim. 3. 7.
So Gideon passed to his reward in a good old age, a man raised up by God to deliver His people, finding his place among the men and women of faith, Heb. 11. 32.