Judges: Did Gideon Check Out?

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on June 7, 2020

Judges 7:1-25

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It’s so good to be back together worshipping with one another and looking at God’s Word. We will turn in our Bibles now to Judges chapter 7 as we pick back up with the story of Gideon. In a recent book on weakness, a writer references an exchange between Charlie Brown and Lucy in the “Peanuts” comic strip. And Charlie Brown looks upset so Lucy asks him, “What’s the matter?” Charlie Brown said, “I feel inferior.” And Lucy says, “Oh, you shouldn’t worry about that. Lots of people have that feeling.” “What? That they’re inferior?” “No, that you’re inferior!” That’s a tough blow for poor Charlie Brown!

Judges chapter 7 is about weakness, and the truth is, whether we feel it or not, we are all weak. All of us. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that money and training and status will get the results that we desire. But that’s not how God works, is it? Instead, God works through unlikely men and women, unlikely boys and girls, to accomplish unlikely purposes in unlikely ways. And He does that so that He may demonstrate His own power, His own strength, and that He receives the glory that is due to His name. And we’ll see God working in those very same ways in the story of Judges chapter 7, the story of Gideon, as he goes up against the Midianites. And we’ll consider two points from this passage as we study tonight. We’ll consider the weakness that pursues and the strength that prevails. The weakness that pursues and the strength that prevails. Before we read, let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Our Father, we give You thanks that You have revealed Yourself to us in Your Word, that You have taught us Your truth, that You have given us Your Spirit, that we might understand and apply these truths to our lives and that we may see Jesus in all of His grace to us in our weakness and sin. So Father, we pray that Your Spirit would speak to us tonight. Speak, for Your servants listen. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Judges chapter 7. It’s also printed in the bulletin if you don’t have a Bible with you tonight:

“Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod. And the camp of Midian was north of them, by the hill of Moreh, in the valley.

The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’’ Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained.

And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many. Take them down to the water, and I will test them for you there, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ shall go with you, and anyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ shall not go.’ So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.’ And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.’ So the people took provisions in their hands, and their trumpets. And he sent all the rest of Israel every man to his tent, but retained the 300 men. And the camp of Midian was below him in the valley.

That same night the Lord said to him, ‘Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hand. But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant. And you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.’ Then he went down with Purah his servant to the outposts of the armed men who were in the camp. And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East lay along the valley like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance. When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, ‘Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat.’ And his comrade answered, ‘This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp.’

As soon as Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise, for the Lord has given the host of Midian into your hand.’ And he divided the 300 men into three companies and put trumpets into the hands of all of them and empty jars, with torches inside the jars. And he said to them, ‘Look at me, and do likewise. When I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then blow the trumpets also on every side of all the camp and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’’

So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. And they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars. They held in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow. And they cried out, ‘A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!’ Every man stood in his place around the camp, and all the army ran. They cried out and fled. When they blew the 300 trumpets, the Lord set every man's sword against his comrade and against all the army. And the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the border of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath. And the men of Israel were called out from Naphtali and from Asher and from all Manasseh, and they pursued after Midian.

Gideon sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, ‘Come down against the Midianites and capture the waters against them, as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan.’ So all the men of Ephraim were called out, and they captured the waters as far as Beth-barah, and also the Jordan. And they captured the two princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb they killed at the winepress of Zeeb. Then they pursued Midian, and they brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon across the Jordan.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

The Weakness that Pursues 

This chapter is an almost complete dismantling of the army that Gideon has mustered to go up against the Midianites. The dismantling, it begins with the man himself, with Gideon. Gideon is not fit for leadership. If you remember back in chapter 6 what he had said when the Lord called him to go and to save Israel, he said, “How can I save Israel? I am from the weakest clan in Manasseh and I am the least in my father’s house.” Then when he went out and he destroyed the altar of Baal, you remember, when did he do it? He did it at night because he was afraid to do it during the daytime. By the time we reach the end of chapter 6, we find Gideon on two different occasions showing his reluctance in leadership by asking for a special sign from the Lord. Gideon doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in his leadership qualifications. 

I heard a story the other day. It was about what some people consider to be the roughest football game ever played. It was 1984, Chicago Bears versus the L.A. Raiders. Jim McMahon, the quarterback for the Bears, spent over ten days in the ICU after the game with a kidney injury. The Raiders lost their two quarterbacks in the game and the next man up for them was their thirty-eight year old punter, Ray Guy, who was also the third-string quarterback. When the call came for him to go in, he basically said, “No way.” He just flat out refused to go into the game. He wasn’t going to take that sort of beating.

Well that’s Gideon in Judges chapter 6. The call comes to him and he more or less demonstrates that he is not up to it. And then when we come to Judges chapter 7, the Lord calls him to go down against the camp of Midian and he says to Gideon, “If you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant.” Next verse, “Then he went down with Purah, his servant.” Of course Gideon was afraid, of course he went down with Purah his servant, because over and over again Gideon shows himself to be fearful and reluctant and unprepared. The thing is, the military force that he’s mustered isn’t much better than he is. It starts out with 32,000 people from Israel, they come out against the Midianites to face them, but when the Lord says to them, “If you’re fearful and afraid, go back home,” well over two-thirds of the army left. Twenty-two thousand people were afraid and deserted to their homes, leaving 10,000 left with Gideon. But then that 10,000 was whittled down even further; whittled down to 300 men by this water drinking test.

Now there’s nothing more commendable about drinking water one way over the other. This is just another way that the Lord uses to get the army down to a small, ridiculously sized number of men; reduced down to only 300 to fight against the Midianites. Then I love what verse 8 says. These 300 men, they’re set apart, they’re ready to go, and verse 8 says, “The people took provisions into their hands and their trumpets.” Their trumpets! Not only is the leader and his force overmatched and outnumbered, but they’re methods are completely insufficient. They have their food and their trumpets! Verse 16 also says they have some empty jars, some torches inside the jar. Now this is not like the old MacGyver show that I used to watch where MacGyver in his 80s mullet and baggy jeans and hightops, he could take a shoestring and a battery and a paperclip and he’d make some sort of explosive device! That’s not what’s going to happen here. This is just all that they have – these torches and their trumpets and empty jars. 

That’s not the most sophisticated weaponry. This is not a level playing field, to say the least, especially when you consider who it is they are going up against. They’re going up against the Midianites, which we’re told in verse 12 were like “locusts in abundance and their camels were without number.” Some of you may have seen this week the reports from India of these locust swarms that have come in different towns and different villages. They’ve darkened the skies and almost covered buildings completely. It’s terrifying. Well that’s what the Midianites are like. They are a terrifying force. If you remember back in chapter 6, the Midianites came down and destroyed the people’s crops, they slaughtered their livestock, they were ruthless, and they were oppressive. And when you take all of these things into account – the man, his military, their methods, and the Midianites – Gideon has no chance. This is like a David and Goliath story before there was a David and Goliath. In fact, when David went out to face Goliath they very well may have said, “This is like a Gideon and the Midianites story!” That’s how much an underdog Gideon is. He is the underdog of underdogs, and almost nothing in this situation is set up for success.

The Strength that Prevails

But that’s the whole point of the passage. It’s right there back in verse 2 where it says, “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’’” You see, the weakness of Gideon and his army is designed to teach the people of Israel a very important lesson. It’s to teach them that this is not their battle, this is not their victory. Victory does not come by their own power; it does not come by their own might. No, victory comes by the Lord’s power and by the Lord’s might. It comes by His strength that the battle is fought and won. You see how Gideon and his army, they’ve been stripped of everything that could contribute to their material success. They are the most exposed to risk and they are the most likely to fail. 

But notice what they do. What do they do then? Very simply, they go. They went down to the Midianite camp as the Lord commanded them. We see that Gideon divided his army into three companies. They went down in the middle of the night. They blew their trumpets and broke their jars and they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” which is hilarious because there wasn’t a sword anywhere in sight. But it didn’t matter, because when the Midianites heard the noise, they saw the flames on their torches, they fled in fear and they turned on one another with their swords. By the end of the chapter. Israel is pursuing the fleeing Midianites and they have killed two of their princes, Oreb and Zeeb. 

This chapter gives us a total reversal – that Gideon, at one point, he was paralyzed, paralyzed with fear, and then in this chapter we find him worshiping. We see Israel and Gideon, terrified and afraid; by the end of the chapter, it’s Midian and their allies that are terrified and afraid. And we find Israel that was at one point oppressed, that now they are victorious. Israel was facing an impossible situation, but that did not mean that they gave up. It didn’t mean that they just sat there idly waiting for a miracle. No, it’s in their weakness that they go; in their frailty, in their insufficiency that they pursued the Midianites. 

You see what that’s teaching us tonight? It’s teaching us that when God says that He will make it so that we do not boast in our own power and in our own might, He’s not saying that we are free from facing the challenge altogether. No, on the other hand, we are expected to obey God’s call, to obey His Word, and to depend upon Him in reliance and humility for His blessing.

I came across a Bible reading plan at the end of last year and the instructions for this reading plan call for reading the book of Acts once a month throughout the year. And the instructions say something like, “If you don’t understand why you should read the book of Acts each month of the year, then that’s exactly why you need to read the book of Acts that often.” And that’s bugged me almost ever since because I didn’t really understand why it was important to read the book of Acts once a month. I can understand the Proverbs, but the book of Acts? That was new to me. But as I’ve read through it several times this year, I think I understand part of the reasoning. I think it has something to do with emphasizing the missionary heartbeat of the Church. 

The early Church was a picture of weakness too. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus left them. He ascended into heaven; He departed from them. And the mission of Christ was left in the hands of some unimpressive fishermen and others like them. Men like Peter who would deny Jesus. And then there was Paul who suffered from a thorn in the flesh. He, for much of the time, well, initially he opposed the Church and for much of the time he was in prison. He was in custody and he was threatened and he was beaten. In fact, there was persecution against the whole Church from the very beginning. But they were obedient to the command of Jesus to, “Go, and make disciples of all nations.” They were witnesses to the resurrection just as Jesus had commanded them to do. And what happened? The Church multiplied greatly. It spread from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth. We see Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ and who are brought together as one in the people of God. 

What was the secret to their success? Well it was the hand of the Lord that was upon them and it was the power of the Holy Spirit that was working through these weak and unimpressive men and women. That’s what accomplished the task that had been given to them. And that’s exactly what we find happening here in Judges chapter 7. This is the same strength that prevails for Gideon. Actually, the key to the whole Gideon narrative is found back in chapter 6, verse 34. It says, “But the Spirit of the Lord clothed Gideon.” The Holy Spirit’s power enabled Gideon and his army, in all of their weakness, to go against and to pursue and to prevail against the Midianite army. It was the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who was sent out at creation. The Holy Spirit who has revealed God to us in His Word by equipping and speaking through those who wrote the Scriptures. It was the Holy Spirit that rested upon and empowered the judges, like Gideon, to do the work that God had called him to do.

I don’t know if you noticed it, but over and over in this chapter we hear about who is responsible for saving Israel and giving the Midianites into their hand. It comes from the mouth of the Lord, it comes from the lips of Gideon; it even comes through a Midianite man as well. The message is the same from each one of those. It’s that the Lord has given the Midianites into Israel’s hand. That’s the strength that prevails. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit through Gideon. And it’s the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s the same Spirit who gives life to all who believe in Jesus, who makes us children of God as we heard this morning – “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” It’s the same Spirit that was poured out at Pentecost to empower the growth and the spread of the Church. Don’t forget that this book, the Bible, is a supernatural book about a supernatural work of God in salvation through Jesus Christ. And the Church is a supernatural work of God that’s carried out not by man’s strength, not by his ingenuity, but by his weakness, by man’s weakness and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Paul says it, doesn’t he, in his letters to the Corinthians. He says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” And when Paul says he will boast, he says he will boast in those things which show his weakness, because the Lord had said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you and My strength is made perfect in weakness.” You see, when Paul was weak, that’s when he was strong. He was so thoroughly aware of his weakness that it was in his weakness that he served the Lord and it was in his weakness that God’s strength was demonstrated. That’s where the power of the Holy Spirit worked in mighty ways to the glory of God. 

If we were to look in Hebrews chapter 11, the writer of Hebrews is talking about Gideon at one point. When he’s listing the men and women of faith in the Old Testament, he’s encouraging the saints to persevere in faith, he mentions Gideon. He says, “Time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, and so on.” And he says that “among many things, they were made strong out of weakness.” Made strong out of weakness. That’s the story of Gideon. The story of Gideon is the one who is embarrassingly and even laughably weak, but he goes against an overwhelming challenge. He puts himself at risk and he displays the strength of God through him. 

Are you ready for God to work like that? Just look around. We are in a sanctuary that is mostly empty; we’re not fully engaged in worship as we are familiar with. For that matter, this sanctuary has been empty for almost three months. And there are regular aspects of ministry, there are regular aspects of our caring for one another that has not happened as we’ve known it in the past. The big ministry programs of this church have been missing. But will Christ still build His Church? Will He continue to mature His saints? Will He keep His promises and preserve His people? Of course He will. Of course God will do that. It just may be that He does it in ways that we would not have thought possible; ways that make us realize it’s not my credentials, it’s not my planning, it’s not my performance that is to credit; it’s my weakness. And it’s His strength that we need. 

Don’t we tend to think that physical vulnerabilities or financial liabilities, that uncertainty about the future, a lack of influence, a lack of control, those are all problems to avoid? But actually, those things are good for us in that they confirm our weakness, a weakness that doesn’t give us permission to shut down, but it’s a weakness that prepares us to obey God’s calling, even when it’s challenging, and to depend upon the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone to do God’s work, to bring about faith and repentance, to bring about fruitfulness and spiritual renewal, to bring about revival and perseverance. When I think about my own heart, I know that I think way too much about my reputation and my rights, my opinion, what I want, instead of being overwhelmed with gratitude at the grace of God and His mercy to us in Jesus Christ instead of serving Him in humble submission and dependence upon the Holy Spirit to do His work through us. 

David began this morning mentioning J.I. Packer, quoting from Packer. One of Packer’s biographers tells us about when Packer was seven years old he was chased from school by a bully and he was hit by a bread delivery truck. It fractured his skull and it was thought that he had damaged his brain. And in his recovery, he missed school for over six months. He had to wear a protective aluminum plate over his head injury until he went to university. When he was eleven years old, he wanted to get a bike for his birthday and his parents instead gave him a typewriter because that was safer. An aluminum plate and a typewriter – those things don’t rank highly in terms of popularity, I would not imagine. He was a picture of weakness. And yet, he became one of the most influential theological writers of the past 100 years, and God has used him in many ways, continues to do so even into his 90s now. Weakness. Weakness, yes, but faithful to God’s call and blessed by the Holy Spirit to the glory of God.

Where in your life are you living in your own strength? Where do we try to avoid vulnerability and inconvenience and discomfort? Where do we try to hold onto our time and our resources or to think that we are right and refuse to be corrected? We don’t like weakness, do we? But let’s not cling to those things that we think will make us strong. Let’s instead rest upon the free grace of God which is sufficient for us and depend upon His strength that is made perfect in weakness. Let’s ask Him to help us do that now. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we marvel at Your grace, the layer upon layer of Your grace which You have poured out onto us. We were undeserving and unworthy when You called us, and we are insufficient and incapable of doing what You have called us to do. And so we ask, Father, that You would help us to give up all those things that we cling to – our own strength, our own reputation, our own power, our own ideas – that we would submit them to You, that we would hear Your Word, and in weakness and in submission and dependence, would You make us like Christ and use the Holy Spirit in our lives to bring You glory. We pray that You would do that in Jesus’ name, amen.

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