Judges: An All Too Common Story

Sermon by David Felker on June 14

Judges 8:1-35

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Please turn with me in your Bibles to the Old Testament book of Judges, Judges chapter 8. This summer on Sunday nights we’re in a sermon series in the book of Judges, and tonight we are looking at the conclusion of the narrative of Gideon. It’s a sad story; it’s a tragic story, this pathology of decline. It’s an all too familiar story, and so we’ll be considering Judges chapter 8, verses 22 to 35, and before we read, just something, something to consider.

Tiger Woods is regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time. He is the only professional golfer to have won all four major championships in a row, something that we call “The Tiger Slam.” He’s been named the PGA, the Professional Golf Association “Player of the Year” ten times, he’s been the PGA money winner nine times for over 5 years; for over 5 years he was ranked as the number one golfer in the world. He’s amassed of fortune with career earnings plus endorsement succeeding $1 billion dollars, most of that time with a beautiful family – a wife and two children. Tiger, for so many years, was on top of the world. And then, came Thanksgiving Day 2010 and that’s where it all fell apart for Tiger Woods. His world unraveled; the public world and the private world of Tiger Woods merged. The curtain was pulled back; the scandal broke. And due to the failure of his character, Tiger Woods experienced a dramatic fall.

Our question tonight is this – “What makes a life unravel? What makes a life unravel?” Because for Tiger Woods, his story remains unfinished, but for so many others – I wish it weren’t the case – but for so many others in entertainment and politics and sports, this is an all too familiar story. We know, we all know stories like this, like Judges 8. We know people – people we love, people we’re close to, people like us, people like us, people in our communities, people in our neighborhoods, people in our families, people like us, and perhaps even ourselves – we all know stories like this. And we think, “What happened? What caused their life to splinter? What caused their life to snap? What makes a life unravel?” And you know, it’s all the more heartbreaking when it’s someone like Gideon who has been greatly used by God, who’s been greatly used, but they fall at the end. What makes a life unravel?

I’ve always loved the Gideon story and I’ve often wondered what happened to Gideon. What happened to him at the end? Gideon starts out so well. We’re first introduced to him in chapter 6. He’s a humble man; he’s an underdog. He says, “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh. I am the least in my father’s house.” He’s humble. His humility is endearing and he’s courageous – 300 against thousands. And as a military leader, he’s successful. And don’t forget that. And so he has so much promise – with childlike faith, with empty hands, he looks to the Lord, he experiences the height of success, only to fail to finish well. And so what do we do with this? We’re talking about Gideon. This is Gideon. We all love the story of Gideon but we don’t know what to do with the tragedy, with the train wreck at the end. And so you see here, finishing well, finishing well may be the greatest battle of your life. What makes a life unravel? How do you hang on to faithfulness? I think part of that mystery is found in Judges chapter 8. And so before we read, let’s ask for the Lord’s help in prayer. Let’s pray together.

Our great God and heavenly Father, we do pray to You tonight. We confess that Your compassion is our story and it is our boast all the day. And so we pray tonight that You would come, that You would give Your Word success, that You would work through my lisping and stammering tongue that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts would be pleasing and acceptable to You, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Judges chapter 8, beginning in verse 22. This is God’s Word:

“Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.’ Gideon said to them, ‘I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.’ And Gideon said to them, ‘Let me make a request of you: every one of you give me the earrings from his spoil.’ (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) And they answered, ‘We will willingly give them.’ And they spread a cloak, and every man threw in it the earrings of his spoil. And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and besides the collars that were around the necks of their camels. And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family. So Midian was subdued before the people of Israel, and they raised their heads no more. And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.

Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and lived in his own house. Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives. And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech. And Gideon the son of Joash died in a good old age and was buried in the tomb of Joash his father, at Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. And the people of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side, and they did not show steadfast love to the family of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.”

Amen. This is God’s Word.

We’re looking – this is the third week now – at the narrative of Gideon. In Judges chapter 6 and 7, God came to Gideon and Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal, he destroyed the idol worship that was in his hometown, and then the Lord called Gideon to lead the Israelite army against the vast and evil Midianites. And the Lord reminds Gideon and the Israelites that salvation comes from Him, that He works through weakness. And so He whittles the Israelite army from 32,000 down to 300 for this battle. And Gideon, in chapter 7, through stealth and through surprise and through the strength of the Lord defeats the Midianites. That’s chapter 7. And so now, Gideon and his army of 300, they have the Midianites on the run and he’s pursuing them. 

And so Judges chapter 8 – I think it’s the bottom of the book. I think Judges chapter 8 is the bottom of the book of Judges. We read a phrase towards the end of chapter 8 in verse 28, this phrase, “The land had rest for forty years in the days of Gideon.” And that’s a phrase that we read after the judges, after Othneil and after Ehud and after Deborah. Each time the Bible says, “The land had rest.” The land went undisturbed – over and over and over again. But when that phrase is used at the end of chapter 8 it is never used again. The land is never at rest again. They are assailed on every side. We see the collapse here. We see utter decay. We see the decline of the family of God and central to it all is the decline and the decay of Gideon. 

In chapter 8, you see, we didn’t read all of it but it’s almost like three short films. You’ve got three scenes. It’s one of the saddest chapters, but the narrator is trying to let us into the decline, into the collapse and the fall of Gideon. And so we’re going to walk through each of these scenes. First, in verses 1 to 17, and second in verses 18 to 21, and then third, our reading tonight in verses 22 to 25. And so these three scenes, they give us a window into the decline of Gideon. 

Scene One 

And so first scene, in verses 1 to 17, we see here Gideon is passing through these Israelite settlements. He’s passing through Ephraim and Succoth and Penuel. And Gideon and his men, remember, they had major success on the battlefield. The Midianites were cavalry raiders and so they would go in and they would steal everything at harvest time. And so they would take the economic lifeblood from the people and they would rape the women and they would kill the men and they would take everything and leave. And so Gideon and his men, they defeated them; they had major success. And he’s got these remaining Midianites that he’s going after, but Gideon has become this national savior. And yet, he’s not treated that way. You see, what do we find at the beginning of chapter 8 as he approaches his own people? These are Israelites. Gideon and his men, they’re exhausted from battle, their exhausted from the pursuit of the remaining Midianites, these kings that they’re after, and so you see in verse 4, Gideon asks the people from Succoth to feed his men but in verse 5 they refuse help; they refuse hospitality. And in verse 8, Gideon asks the people from Penuel to feed his men. We find the same response from them. And so you see, in the text, both Succoth and Penuel refuse because they fear retaliation. They don’t trust that Gideon and his men will defeat these remaining Midianites, and so it’s out of self-preservation. If they support Gideon, they think the Midianites are going to come back and they’re going to retaliate. 

And what does Gideon do? He essentially says, “I’ll be back. I will come back for you.” And Gideon here, you see in the verses that follow, he finishes off the Midianites. In verse 12, he takes these kings as prisoners but the focus of the text is not the battle. The focus of the text is this conflict that Gideon has with his own people, these Israelite settlements. He returned to Succoth in verse 16 and he “taught them a lesson.” He tortures them. These are his own people. He doesn't kill them, but the suffering he inflicts is severe. It says he took thorns and briars and taught them a lesson. So this is no light punishment. Gideon tortures his own people. And then he goes to Penuel, verse 17, “breaking down the tower and killing the men of the city.” Gideon is enraged. You can almost hear him saying, “Do you know who I am?” 

And I think this first scene is one of those sad places where the end of Gideon’s story is so sad to me. Because if you remember just two weeks ago, Judges chapter 6, the beginning of Gideon’s story – it’s a page before in the story – what are the words out of Gideon’s mouth? Gideon says – the Lord came to him and called him and he says – “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh. I am the least in my father’s house.” Chapter 6 verse 15, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel?” It’s almost like in chapter 6 he’s saying, “Do you know who I am? How can I do this? Do you know, Lord, who I am?” And now in chapter 8, there’s no longer this beautiful posture of humility. He is enraged. “Do you know who I am?” After all that Gideon had seen, after all the Lord had done, after all the patience that the Lord had given, after all the provision – now Gideon, of all people, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m coming back for you.”

You see, there’s this blindness here. What happened? How did he get here? This is where Gideon’s story is so sad to me. I think we get this contradiction. I think that we understand this inner conflict in Gideon. I think we know all too deeply what is going on here. This story is too familiar. That’s the first scene.

Scene Two 

The second scene, verses 18 and 19, Gideon has captured the kings of Midian and verses 18 and 19 add this key detail to the story. These verses tell us that the Midianite kings had killed Gideon’s own brothers. And this is new information. As the reader, this is new information to us. Gideon’s brothers were murdered in some way and most think outside of a battle context, that they were viciously assassinated or murdered. And as the reader, you had no idea that this was churning in Gideon’s heart. The whole time, you believed that Gideon is motivated to go after these kings as the leader of God’s people, as the judge completing the work that the Lord gave him to do, but we learn here that the murder of his brothers motivated Gideon in the pursuit of the Midianites. As one commentator said, “Gideon’s ruthless, remarkable pursuit has been motivated less by a desire to complete the deliverance of God’s people than by a drive for personal vengeance.” 

And so here we are at the end of Gideon’s life. Is it about God and God’s glory? Or is it about Gideon and his pride and his personal vengeance? And so Gideon here, you see this – I think that the answer to that question is in verse 20. As Gideon tells his firstborn son to “Rise and kill these Midianite kings,” you see that Gideon is out to embarrass them. He’s out to humiliate them by killing them with a youth. And so Gideon is flexing his muscles. “Don’t you know who I am?” And so you see that something has been boiling in Gideon’s heart and now it really comes to the surface. 

If you’ve been reading in the narrative, one thing that you saw is in chapter 6 and in the beginning of chapter 7, there was a lot of dialogue between Gideon and the Lord. The last time that Gideon is recorded as speaking to the Lord is in chapter 7 verse 9. He worships the Lord in chapter 7 verse 15, but later in chapter 7 and in chapter 8 we don’t see that dependence on the Lord. You don’t see the endearing humility. You don’t see the continual leaning on the Lord, the weakness that you saw just on the previous page. I think the more Gideon falls away from that dependence on the Lord, the more his failures are exposed. And so Gideon goes from being a timid and cowering youth to this humble servant and now he is this conquering and vindictive general. That’s the second scene.

Scene Three 

And then the third scene we read in verses 22 to 35. After Gideon settles the score, Gideon ends up killing the Midianites kings. We see in verse 22 that the men of Israel ask him to be king over them. “Rule over us, Gideon.” And Gideon replies appropriately, he replies beautifully in verse 23, “I will not rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” And yet, the facts don’t match up. His heart doesn’t match his word. In fact, when Gideon said in verse 23, “The Lord is king,” that’s the last time that the Lord’s name is recorded coming out of Gideon’s mouth. Gideon forgets who the Lord is, and in so doing, he forgets who he is. He doesn’t accept the title of “king” but when it comes to life as lived, he goes after it with everything that he’s got. 
Because what is the first thing that Gideon does after he refuses this kingship? In verse 24, he begins to tax them. And so he takes their gold, he takes their spoils, and help himself as a king would, creating something like a royal treasury. And then in verses 29 to 31, he establishes a harem. He goes and he takes wives as a king would. And we see that he has one son in particular from a concubine and he names him, Abimelech. That sounds like every other Hebrew name, but Abimelech means “My father is king.” And so Gideon said, “No, no, no, the Lord is king,” and then he named his child, “My father is king.” 

And then in verse 27, he makes an ephod. Exodus 28 tells us that an ephod is a priestly garment, a vest of sorts, that God instructed the Israelites to make for the high priest and only for the high priest to wear and only in the tabernacle, which at this point, was in Shiloh. And so when Gideon goes and he makes a golden ephod, this counterfeit ephod, what he’s saying is very clear. He’s establishing his hometown as a rival place of worship. And so he’s using God to centralize power, to consolidate his power, to capture the loyalty of the people so that the people would come to him for direction. And then you see at the end, verse 27, it “became a snare to them,” meaning that it captured their allegiance, it captured their affection. 

And so here is a man who started his life in chapter 6 and he was tearing down idols, and now at the end of his life he is building them up. I think here’s the bottom line – as commentator Ralph Davis said, “It is ever our danger that after being used of God in some way we mouth humility but we practice pride.” We mouth humility but we practice pride. What has happened to Gideon? What has happened to him? And we’re given an indication here at the end in verse 34. “The people of Israel did not remember the Lord their God.” In other words, God brought Gideon to a place of weakness – the 300 – but Gideon forgets. He forgets, “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh. I am the least in my father’s house.” He forgets the welcome and the outrageous grace of the Lord. You do not see the limp here. You don’t see the weakness. You don’t see the dependence, the humility, knowing that he’s held up by the lavish love of the Lord, and only the lavish love of the Lord. Gideon forgets. Gideon started out so well, but something happens to Gideon. His life completely unravels at the end. What happened to this man? What happened to Gideon?

Don’t you see, Gideon becomes successful? He becomes successful. And he is spoiled by that success. That’s how a life disintegrates. He forgets, “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh. I am the least in my father’s house.” He forgets the 300. He forgets the limp, the humility, the dependence, the weakness. Tim Keller, in his Judges commentary, makes the point that we often think the worst thing that can happen is failure. We often think that the worst thing that can happen is failure. And he says that, “Failure will bring its own set of baggage, but at least when we fail it leaves us longing for a better Savior. But success,” Keller said, “success is the worst thing that can happen.” The life of Gideon says, “Success is the greatest trial of all.” Success. That’s why Thomas Carlyle wrote that only 1 in 100 passes the test of prosperity. And we see at the end of his life, sadly, Gideon belonged to the 99. His success was the greatest battle of his life and he failed in that battle.

I think that you sports fans will remember 2013 at the Iron Bowl football game, Auburn versus Alabama. And on the final play, the number one ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, they attempted a field goal to win the game. And the kick was just short. And Auburn’s Chris Davis caught the ball just in front of the goalpost at the back of the endzone and he ran 109 yards, the entire field plus the endzone, for this improbable, game-winning touchdown on the last play of the game. And that victory propelled Auburn to the National Championship Game. And they lost that game. And after that loss, their football coach, Gus Malzahn, who had weeks before miraculously before beaten Alabama, he said, “It was so difficult to move on from that victory.” He said it was so difficult to rip his players away and to rip his coaches away from the success that they had. 

You see, we all know stories like this – people we love, people we’re close to, people like us, perhaps even ourselves, their lives disintegrate. We all know stories like this. Success – the greatest test of them all. And I think the lesson is not, “Don’t succeed.” That is not the lesson. God is not asking you to renounce your success. Those are gifts. God gave them to you. But to realize that your success will often be the thing that blinds you. It will give you the allusion of competency. You see, no matter how polished you are, you may say, “The Lord is King.” No matter how polished your Christian doctrine, when it comes to life as lived, we’re talking about the real you, and every one of us, we should get down on our knees and pray, “Lord, save me from the allusion of competency. Save me from my successes. Save me from my strengths. Help me not forget my own version of, ‘My clan is the weakest in Manasseh. I am the least in my father’s house.’ Help me not forget the 300. Help me, Lord, not forget the limp. Make me humble. Keep me low. Let me not forget when I am weak is when I am strong.”

Gideon started out so well but he didn’t end well. And so here’s the question for us tonight. “Do you see in Gideon possibilities within yourself?” If so, how can Gideon be a cautionary tale for us? How can we finish well? I think, can we not admit that this is every one of us. This is the road well traveled – to put your confidence in your strength, to put your confidence in your success. We’re just moving along. It’s the road well traveled. It doesn’t seem that dangerous. It seems like the flow of traffic, but can we not admit this is every one of us. 

And there’s a warning for us here but there’s also a great consolation. And certainly our hope lies not with Gideon. Our hope lies not with some flawed leader. This story is a great consolation because it says that when we blow it, or when someone that we love blows it, when they disappoint us, it turns our eyes again and again and again to the One who will not disappoint. First Peter says the leader of God’s people who does not disappoint – it turns our eyes again to the One who humbled Himself. “From heaven He came and sought us to be His holy Bride.” He sought us and He bought us. “Not my feet only, Lord, but my hands and my head.” And He brought us into His family with a seat at His table where He washes all of our deadly doing and we are completely undeserving and we are preciously loved. Do you see in Gideon possibilities within yourself? If so, then how can you finish well?

Let me close with this. The Crown is a television show which explores the life and reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. And in this most recent season of the show there’s an episode entitled, “Moon Dust.” And this episode follows Prince Philip’s loss of faith and his accompanying midlife crisis. His life appears to be unraveling as he’s grieving the death of his mother. And in the beginning of the episode, Prince Philip, as he’s walking into church with the Queen, he asks, “Why do we do this, week in and week out?” And as the sermon begins he’s bored out of his mind and Philip leans over to the Queen and he whispers, “It’s not a sermon. It’s a general anesthetic.” And Philip is obsessed in this episode with the Apollo 11 astronauts in the summer of 1969. He idolizes these men – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He idolizes their success and he considers them gods among men. But at the end of the episode, a humbled Philip, he walks in to meet with a group of ministers and he says to them, “I was more scared coming here to see you today than I would have been going up in any rocket.” And then he says – and I love this line – he says, “Before you, I have not a small part of desperation. Before you, I have not a small part of desperation as I come to say, ‘Help. Help me.’”

And so tonight, do you have not a small part of desperation? Then cry out to the Lord, “Help. Help me.” And sing to Him again, “The Bride eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face. I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace; not at the crown He giveth, but on His pierced hands. The Lamb, the Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.” 

Amen. Let’s pray together.

God of all grace, we come to You tonight and ask that You would be merciful to us as sinners before You. We pray that You would make us humble and we pray and ask for Your help. Help us, we pray. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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