Now let me invite you please to turn with me in your copy of God’s Word to the book of Judges, chapter 7 - Judges chapter 7, which you will find if you are using a church Bible on page 206. Before we read God’s Word together, would you bow your heads with me as we pray together?
Before us, O Lord, is Your holy and inerrant Word. Come now, we pray, in the power and presence of the Spirit by whom these words came to be written and have been preserved, and help us understand, and more, help us receive and rest on Christ as He comes to us in holy Scripture, in Jesus’ name, amen.
Judges chapter 7 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
In 1858, John Paton set sail for the New Hebrides as a missionary, to a chain of islands in the South Pacific, that were then inhabited by cannibalistic islanders who knew nothing of the Lord Jesus. Shortly after he arrived on the island of Tanna, his wife gave birth to his first son, Peter. Nineteen days later, his wife died, and then Peter followed her aged only twenty-nine days. It was a crushing blow at the very beginning of what would be an arduous and challenging ministry. “My reason,” he said, “seemed almost for a time to give way.” He was himself racked with fever as he dug with his own hands the graves of his precious family. He frequently returned to their graves and poured out his heart in prayer on behalf of the lost people of those islands. One lonely missionary amongst cannibals. “When so ever Tanna turns to the Lord and is won for Christ,” he wrote, “men and after days will find the memory of that spot still green, where with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed that land for God in which I had buried my dead with faith and hope. But for Jesus and the fellowship He vouchsafed me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.” It was not an auspicious beginning. Paton was a broken man, teetering on the brink of emotional and physical collapse, far from a prime candidate for missionary effectiveness. But he labored on in weakness, and actually in the fullness of time, the entire population of a neighboring island, Aniwa, came to Christ through his ministry. The Scriptures were translated into the local languages, missionaries were sent to twenty-five out of the thirty islands in the chain, including Tanna where his wife and child were buried. At the start of his ministry, everything seemed to have been stripped away from him systematically - his wife, his firstborn child, his own emotional and mental and physical welfare. And in utter and abject weakness, God did a mighty work.
It is a central principle of Christian truth that God uses weak servants for His great end so that all the glory would be His alone. That’s the lesson John Paton’s life teaches; it’s the lesson some of us have learned by hard, sore, providences, stripping us and bringing us to weakness and then discovering in our weakness the Lord making use of us. It is certainly the lesson of Judges chapter 7. Would you look at the passage with me please?
THE STRATEGY GOD EMPLOYS
Let me direct your attention in the first place to verses 1 to 8 and the strategy that God employs - the strategy that God employs. It is the period of the judges. Moses and Joshua are dead, Israel has settled in the land of Canaan, and their national spiritual lives are marked by a spiral, an increasingly downward spiral, of flirtation with and eventual open preference for the paganism of the people into whose lives they’ve come. The pattern again and again in the book of Judges is that God’s people would walk with the Lord for a season, then they’d fall into idolatry, turning aside to false gods, the Lord would discipline them by giving them into the hands of their enemies and oppressors, they would cry out to the Lord and the Lord would raise up a judge, a deliverer, a savior. And as we come to Judges chapter 7, we are coming in, in the middle of the story of one of those judges, the story of Gideon. Our own Ralph Kelley was speaking to the Men of the Covenant on Thursday about the beginning of Gideon’s ministry in Judges chapter 6 where he was a man filled with fear needing constant reassurance. He’s still very much that same man here in Judges 7, but now we see him finally submitting to the will of God. He has raised an army and he is setting out now to confront the enemies of the people of God and provide the deliverance the Lord would bring.
For seven years, at this point, the Midianites and the Amalekites together have been invading and oppressing the people of Israel, stealing the harvest year upon year. In chapter 6:33 to the end, Gideon gathered his army, received assurances from the Lord that He would in fact save Israel through him, and now the battle lines are drawn and Gideon is about to begin the conflict. He has made camp at the spring of Harod, verse 1, where he makes his final preparations for the conflict. And I want you to notice carefully the word of the Lord that came to him there in verse 2. Notice the Lord does not say, “You know, Gideon, the Midianites are too many for Me to give them into your hand.” What does the Lord say? He says, “You have too many men for Me to deliver Midian into their hands.” It is backwards, isn’t it? One rather imagines Gideon scratching his head and saying, “Lord, I thought You wanted me to win this war! I have too many men for You to give them into my hands?” But look at God’s explanation. What’s at stake? “You have too many men for Me to deliver Midian into your hands,” then He says, “lest Israel boast over Me saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’” If Israel is to win this war it will not be because of their superior military strength. God is going to make sure of that so that all possibility of self-reliant boasting will be stripped from them.
He sends home, in the first cut, 22,000 men who are afraid to fight. Now there’s less than a third of Gideon’s original fighting force and still the Lord is not done. Verses 4 to 8 - this time the Lord commands Gideon to send the army to the stream to drink. Verse 4 - the Lord is going to test them for Gideon. He’s going to test them selecting who will fight and who will go home. The test will be they were to drink and those who stooped and scooped up the water and lapped at it like dogs, they would be reserved and the others sent home. Only 300 men are selected. In verse 7, “With the 300 men I will save you and give the Midianties into your hands.” Out of a total original fighting force of 32,000 men, Gideon has 300.
Why were these three hundred chosen? Some commentators point out the Hebrew word used in verse 4 when God says He will test the people is actually used in the forging of metal. It is the refining process by which the dross is consumed and the usable metal is left over. And so some, like the commentator Daniel Block, suggests, “This handful of men represents the pure gold which Yahweh desires in His service.” According to Block, in other words, the men who scooped the water up in their hands and lapped at it, they’re supposed to be the real soldiers, the crack commandos. They didn’t bend down and expose themselves to attack. They stayed alert and vigilant. These are Gideon’s elite forces. Is that really what the Lord is doing here? Is He selecting the pure military gold from the dross? Are these 300 men really the equivalent of SEAL Team 6? Is that what this is? Were they chosen because they were special?
Actually, that’s the opposite of why they were chosen. The idea is that God is sifting the ranks of Gideon’s army selecting those whom He intends to use, but the idea is emphatically not that He’s looking for the really great warriors among them. Just notice how unflattering the language is that the Lord uses to describe them. He calls them, He likens them to dogs. These are the men He’s looking for; not the brightest or the best. In fact, as the story develops, it becomes clear the only real skills these 300 men require is the ability to break pottery, hold up a torch, and shout loudly and blow a trumpet - not exactly Special Forces material.
So what is going on? What on earth could God be doing sending a force of only 300 men to save the combined might of the armies of Midian and Amalek? Well God’s strategy is simple. He wants to show us that it is not great strength or great military prowess that will win the day for Gideon. Instead, He wants Gideon to learn and Israel to learn and us to learn the battle belongs to the Lord. He is deliberately weakening the army, reducing it to what is frankly a laughable token force, so that we might learn that God delights to use the weak to do strong things. He loves to use the small to get big things done. He loves to take impossible odds and overcome them so that He gets the glory and we learn to trust Him. It’s His invariable strategy. Remember how He took aged Abram and made him the father of many nations. He took stammering, stuttering Moses and makes him Israel’s deliverer. He takes a cross, of all things, and nails His Son to it, and by the wounds of our Savior, redeems us.
The apostle Paul had to learn this principle, didn’t he? 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. He says that in order to keep him from becoming conceited he was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan, to harass him and buffet him. “Three times,” he said, “I pleaded with the Lord about this that it should leave me, for the Lord said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for My power is made perfect’”…where? “’In weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses that the power of Christ may rest in me.” He goes on, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” That’s what the Lord wants the Israelites and Gideon and you and me to grasp. Listen to this now. Weakness is not a liability in the Christian life because God’s grace is sufficient for us. Weak believers, dependent upon Jesus, weak believers are God’s ordained instruments for the building of His kingdom. His power is made perfect in weakness. When we are weak, then are we strong. The power of Christ is all the power we need.
What kind of people will God use? Three hundred men whose primary quality is their resemblance to canines. A broken and buffeted apostle Paul who’s been brought low by overwhelming affliction. A missionary to the New Hebrides whose wife and child and health and strength and almost his sanity too have been taken from him. Maybe you. Maybe you. Has the Lord in some turn of sore providence brought you low? Maybe part of His design is simply to make you depend on Him that He may do mighty things for you and in you and through you that He might get all the glory. Maybe He’s teaching you to say with Paul, “When I am weak, then am I strong. His grace is sufficient for me.” Maybe you’re saying, maybe you’re ruling yourself out. “What do I have to offer? I have no strength left in my arm. I’m too old. I’m too young. I’m too small. I’m inadequate. My gifts are too slight. What possible use am I in the kingdom?” Brothers and sisters, the kingdom of God is not built by the mighty God uses, but by the weak whom God uses mightily. That’s what God wanted in Gideon, not a great man of God but a weak man clinging to a great God. Not mighty and therefore self-reliant, but aware of just how empty and broken he really is, aware of his weaknesses yet confidence in grace. That’s the strategy God employs.
THE ASSURANCE GOD PROVIDES
Then secondly, the assurance God provides - 9 to 15. Gideon now has his not-so-great 300, it’s almost time for the battle, and in verse 9 the Lord tells Gideon to go down against the camp. “Let’s go, Gideon! It’s time for the conflict.” But He knows Gideon’s heart. Here’s a token of the marvelous love and kindness of God. Gideon, in chapter 6 if you’ll read it at home, Gideon in chapter 6 is filled with insecurity and fear. Again and again he has to ask the Lord for assurance. This time, however, he doesn’t have to ask. In the marvelous condescension and care of God for His child, before the prayer is even formed on his lips, the Lord comes to him and provides him reassurance. He tells him, “Take your servant, Purah. If you’re scared to go into the battle, take your servant, go down, and listen out and you’ll hear something that will strengthen your hands.”
And look at how verse 12 emphasizes the sight that greeted Gideon that night in the darkness. It says, verse 12, “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.” So we picture Gideon running along in a crouch, darting from bush to bush, and just the whole valley is filled with the enemy. And he’s saying, “Lord, I thought You said this was going to comfort me and reassure me! Look at them!” And then he overhears the scuffle in the camp that night as one sentry is talking to another about a dream he had. A loaf of barley comes rolling into the camp and just flattens a Midianite tent. And his comrade immediately interprets the dream. “This is nothing other than the sword of Gideon, the son of Joash, the Israelite; God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.”
You see the marvelous sovereignty of God exercised in loving-kindness toward Gideon? The one sentry who happens to have a dream about Gideon is the one Gideon overhears that night. And even the dreams of the enemy in the sovereignty of God are governed and superintended so that they may be a word of assurance and comfort to Gideon and a word of judgment and wrath to his enemies. The Lord is saying to Gideon, “I know. Look at the enemy. Take in the odds against you, but let Me show you who is really in charge. Let me show you who truly reigns.” Even over the words on the tongue of the enemy, even over their dreams in their beds at night, Gideon understands the Lord reigns. Some of us are facing trials and we have forgotten that the Lord reigns. Understand, brothers and sisters, that the sovereignty of God puts your every trial in the shade. He’s saying to Gideon and He’s saying to you, “Trust Me with this. Trust Me as you go down into this dark valley where the enemy are encamped, and you will see, you will see in days to come how My victory will be written large over it all.” The assurance that God gives. You can trust Him; rest on Him. The Lord reigns.
THE OBEDIENCE GOD BLESSES
And then finally, the obedience that God blesses. The strategy God employs. The assurance God provides. The obedience God blesses. Verses 15 to 25, Gideon takes his 300 men, he divides them into three companies, each moved to a different location surrounding the Midianite camp on the hills all around the valley. Notice first how each company is equipped. They’re supplied with the strangest weaponry ever issued for a midnight ambush. They have trumpets and jars with torches inside. That’s it. Secondly, look at the timing. It’s the beginning of the middle watch - verse 19. That’s the darkest point of the night, around midnight. The new sentries have just been posted. Actually, you know in the story of Gideon, the nighttime is the time to be afraid; it’s the time of unbelief and fear. In 6:27, Gideon destroys the altar of Baal at night because he’s afraid. In 6:36-40, God gives assuring signs to Gideon at dawn after the night of fear and doubt has passed. In 7:9, Gideon crept into the camp in the dark of night because he was afraid and God gave him comfort. And now this time it’s the Midianites’ turn to be afraid at the darkest watch of the night. As Gideon leads his men into position, when they’ve surrounded the enemy they blow their trumpets, smash their jars, lift their torches and shout at the top of their voices, verse 20, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!” There’s not a sword in the camp; not a sword among their men. They’ve got a torch in one hand and a trumpet in the other. None of them have a sword in their hands. The only sword in the camp that night belonged to the enemy.
Verse 22 tells us what happens next. They are so terrified. The Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The tatters of their broken army flee the battlefield. Gideon sends out the men of Naphtali, Asher, and Manasseh and then Ephraim, to round them up, and a great victory was won that day. And Gideon and his men did not once so much as raise a weapon in anger against them. What is going on? Gideon has learned, at last it seems, to take God at His Word even though the means of His ordination seem weak and ineffective and deploy them nevertheless. And he finds, as he trusts the means of God’s ordination, that God does a mighty work through them. It is faith in action.
There is a good deal in the Christian life that appears on the surface ineffectual, weak, unimpressive - a talking head preaching the Bible, bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, the Gospel of a weak, broken, crucified Jewish Rabbi - but that weak Gospel, Paul says, “is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.” The talking head opening the Bible delivers to you the words of eternal life. The waters of baptism, just water, is a sign and seal of saving grace. Bread and wine, eaten in faith, convey to you Christ and all His benefits. Weak, ordinary, mundane, unimpressive means. They do not look promising for helping you through the trials of life, for advancing your conflict with sin, for helping you make progress in the Christian life. But the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but spiritual and mighty for tearing down strongholds. I think part of the message of Judges chapter 7 is saying to you there are all sorts of mechanisms and tools and shortcuts that promise the world, telling you, “Make use of me. Turn to this new methodology or this seven step program and all will be well and you’ll get where you want to go without any of the fuss or bother.” And they’re all lies and they’re all bankrupt. And the most mundane means of them all, the ink on a page of this ancient Book, the bread and wine at the table of the Lord, the faltering, stumbling, weak prayers of a believing woman, crying out to her Master, calling down heaven, those are the means the Lord has ordained for the blessing of His people. And God is saying, “Just as I use weak men and women for My great end, so I have ordained simple, mundane means to accomplish mighty things in your heart.”
Trust God’s Word, cling to the means of grace, and see if the Lord will not win victory after victory after victory in your life, in this church, and in His kingdom in our midst. Amen, will you pray with me?
Our Father, we bless You that You are the Lord who reigns, and no matter the trials and opponents and enemies that face us, the battle belongs to the Lord. Help us to measure our chances of success not by the strength left in our own arm but by the mighty power of the God of all grace who is with us. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Turn with me now please in your hymnals to hymn 571 as we conclude our service - “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus!”
And now may grace, mercy, and peace from Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you all now and forevermore. Amen.
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