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1. How God Works in Dark Times (Judges 6:1-24)

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Gideon, Lesson 1

January 12, 2020

If you keep up with the news, it’s difficult not to get depressed. Every day brings stories of human suffering through war, terrorism, natural disasters, or crime. In addition, I get daily emails that tell how the world is attacking our Christian faith from every angle imaginable. Even the news about Christianity reports many stories of Christian leaders and churches falling into sin or defecting from the faith. We live in spiritually dark times that can lead us to despair.

The book of Judges sketches one of the darkest spiritual times in Israel’s history. Joshua had led Israel out of the wilderness and into the promised land. Under his leadership, Israel had conquered much of the land which God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. But after Joshua’s death, we read (Jud. 2:10-13):

All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel. Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the Lord to anger. So they forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtaroth.

Those verses describe the bleak condition of Israel 11 or 12 centuries before Christ. But they also can apply directly to us today. If you grew up in a Christian home as I did, it is a great blessing, but there is also an inherent danger: Your parents knew the Lord and experienced the power of the gospel in their lives. But the question is, do you know the Lord? Have you experienced the power of the gospel in your life? If you’re only a cultural Christian without a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, you are susceptible to following the idols of our godless culture even as Israel was doing in Gideon’s day.

But the encouraging message of the book of Judges is that God is at work even in the darkest of times and even with the weakest, most mixed up people, to accomplish His sovereign purpose for His glory. Gideon never would have done what he did if God had not taken the initiative. And so, Gideon is not really the hero of this story. God is the hero! But God chooses to work through some weak people whom He teaches to trust in Him. As Paul put it (2 Cor. 4:7), “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.”

In this message, we will look at Gideon’s calling (Judges 6:1-24). In the next two messages, we will see Gideon’s conditioning (Jud. 6:25-7:15a); and, Gideon’s conquering, followed (sadly) by his compromising (Jud. 7:15b-7:25; 8:22-35). Applied to us, the lesson from Gideon’s calling is:

Because God is at work even in the spiritually darkest times, we can trust Him to use us even in our weakness to accomplish His sovereign purpose.

1. God is at work even in the spiritually darkest times.

When you look around at the depressing news, it may seem that God has gone on vacation. But He never does. As Paul states (Eph. 1:11), we have been “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” That was true in Gideon’s day as well. The book of Judges contains at least six similar cycles: Israel falls into sin; because of their sin, God brings an enemy that forces them into servitude; eventually, when the suffering seems overwhelming, Israel cries out to God in supplication; in response, God sends a “judge” who leads them to salvation. The judges were not like modern courtroom judges, but rather were leaders who provided military deliverance from Israel’s enemies and political oversight in limited geographical regions of Israel.

The fact that God was willing to repeat the deliverance of His idolatrous people over and over shows His great patience and grace. But the harsh servitude that He brought on His sinning people teaches us that sin never delivers on its promises. It promises happiness and prosperity, but in the end, it brings enslavement and suffering to nations, families, and individuals.

The theme of Judges is (21:25): “In those days, there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes” (see, also, Jud. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1). Many of the judges were flawed men who showed that Israel needed a godly leader who could unify the nation in the worship of Yahweh. In the story line of the Bible, Judges follows the conquest of the land under Joshua and precedes the short story of Ruth, which shows how a Moabite widow trusted the God of Israel and was adopted into His covenant people. The punch line at the end of Ruth (4:17-22) tells us that she became the great-grandmother of King David. Then 1 Samuel tells how Israel finally got a king: first, the unfaithful King Saul and then David, the faithful king after God’s heart, whose descendant would be Jesus the Messiah.

In Gideon’s day, Israel was being overrun by the Midianites, a nomadic people who lived southeast of Israel. They were descendants of Abraham and his concubine Keturah (Gen. 25:1-2). During Israel’s time in the wilderness, the Midianites had joined with the Moabites under the counsel of Balaam to seduce Israel into immorality and idolatry (Num. 25:1-9). As a result, God told Moses to strike the Midianites in war (Num. 25:16-18).

In Gideon’s day, Midian would stay east of the Jordan River until harvest time. Then, with the Amalekites (another enemy of Israel) they would swarm into Israel like locusts, devour their crops, and steal their farm animals (Jud. 6:4-5). The Israelites did not have the military strength to fight off these hordes, so they had to hide out in dens and caves in the mountains and watch helplessly as the crops they had worked to harvest were consumed by these foreign raiders. This had gone on for seven years. The people were brought very low and finally cried out to the Lord (Jud. 6:1, 6-7).

Before God raised up Gideon as a military deliverer, He sent an unnamed prophet to confront Israel with their apostasy. After rehearsing God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, the prophet reminded them of the Lord’s command not to fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land they lived. Then the Lord added pointedly (Jud. 6:10b), “But you have not obeyed Me.”

Next, we see the Lord at work when He showed up in Gideon’s village of Ophrah as “the angel of the Lord” (not “an angel,” but “the angel”). While some scholars dispute that the angel of the Lord was God Himself, I think that Scripture shows that He was the Lord Jesus Christ in preincarnate form (F. Duane Lindsey, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, 1:381). He had the appearance of a man, but after He touched Gideon’s meal offering with his staff, causing it to be consumed with fire from the rock, He then disappeared. At that point, Gideon thought he would die because he had seen the angel of the Lord face to face (Jud. 6:22). Later, Samson’s father Manoah feared the same fate after he and his wife saw the same angel. Manoah calls the angel of the Lord, “God” (Jud. 13:21-22).

So even though Gideon lived in dark times politically and spiritually, God was at work. He was at work in disciplining His wayward people. He was at work to raise up a prophet to confront the people with their sin. He was at work to show up bodily in Gideon’s town and then to call Gideon to deliver His people. No matter how dark the times and even if you can’t see how the Lord is working, you can be sure that He is working to accomplish His sovereign purpose for His glory. How does He do it?

2. God uses weak people to accomplish His sovereign purpose.

God didn’t look for a man with renowned military skills, who was already a recognized leader in his community and nation. Rather, He picked a weak man who remained somewhat weak through the whole story and who (at the end of the story) finally failed. We see Gideon’s weakness in our text in at least five ways:

First, Gideon was defeated and cowardly. He was threshing wheat in a winepress. Normally, farmers would thresh wheat (to separate the wheat from the chaff) by using oxen pulling a heavy threshing sledge over it in an exposed area where the wind would blow the chaff away. But Gideon was down in a winepress beating the wheat with a stick “in order to save it from the Midianites” (Jud. 6:11).

Second, Gideon was dense spiritually. He either had not heard or not understood the message of the prophet, who attributed Israel’s abysmal situation to their sin. Gideon rehearsed for the angel how the Lord had delivered Israel from Egypt through mighty miracles. But he mistakenly concluded (Jud. 6:13), “But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” He was right about the Lord giving Israel into the hand of Midian, but he was wrong in saying that the Lord had abandoned them. As we’ve seen the Lord was working even in this spiritually dark time.

Third, Gideon was depressed. We see this in his complaint that God had abandoned Israel. Gideon had lost hope for any deliverance from this oppressive enemy that was literally eating Israel’s lunch!

Fourth, Gideon was down on himself rather than being focused on the Lord. When the angel tells Gideon (Jud. 6:14), “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian,” He was not implying that Gideon had the strength in himself to deliver Israel from the Midianites. Rather, Gideon’s strength was to be found in the angel’s rhetorical question, “Have I not sent you?” and in the angel’s promise (Jud. 6:16), “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man.” But Gideon was focused on his own incompetence rather than on the Lord’s power and presence. In verse 15, Gideon tells the angel (note the repeated “I” and “my”), “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house.”

Fifth, Gideon was doubtful of God’s promises. The angel promised to be with Gideon and that Gideon would defeat the enemy. But Gideon needed a sign to confirm the angel’s word. God graciously complied with His weak servant’s request, first by incinerating Gideon’s offering; and then by making Gideon’s fleece first wet and then dry. Finally, knowing Gideon’s remaining doubts about attacking the Midianites, God graciously provided a final sign by allowing Gideon to overhear an enemy soldier telling about a dream in which Gideon was victorious over the Midianite army (Jud. 7:9-14). But up to that point, Gideon was marked by doubts.

Perhaps you can relate to one or more of these forms of weakness. Maybe you are defeated by some sin that robs you of the fullness of God’s blessing in your life. Or, you’re spiritually dense. You don’t see how God can possibly be at work in your dark situation. Maybe you’re depressed because of your circumstances. You’ve lost hope for any kind of deliverance. Or, perhaps you’re focused on yourself rather than the Lord. You feel as if you’re too weak and insignificant for God to use you. And maybe you’re doubtful of God’s promises to be with you and to give you victory over the enemy. In other words, you’re a lot like Gideon!

What’s the solution? It’s not, as the world tells us, to believe in yourself. It’s not to build your self-esteem or to follow some best-selling author’s steps to success. Rather, as C. H. Mackintosh wrote (Miscellaneous Writings [Loizeaux Brothers], 2:21), “If we can do nothing, self-confidence is the height of presumption. If God can do everything, despondency is the height of folly.” Or as the apostle Paul wrote (2 Cor. 1:8-9), “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.” Trusting in God is the solution for weak people who want to see Him work in their dark situation.

3. The weak people God uses must learn to trust His mighty strength.

Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:26-29):

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

Paul also told the Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:9-10),

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Besides Paul, throughout Scripture we see God using weak people who trust in Him. Abraham and Sarah were barren and beyond their ability to bear children when God promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations. Jacob had to trust God to protect him from his stronger brother, Esau. Moses had to spend 40 years in the wilderness tending sheep to break him of his self-confidence. When the Lord then called him to deliver Israel, Moses complained that he was unable to speak well. He asked God to find someone else. Peter failed terribly by denying the Lord before the Lord used him to bring 3,000 to faith on the Day of Pentecost.

But trusting God can be sort of nebulous. Our text reveals five requirements of trusting God that helps bring it more into focus:

First, trusting God requires repenting of compromise with the world. The prophet whom God sent confronted Israel’s idolatry (Jud. 6:10). But their crying out to God for help was not the same as repentance. As we’ll see (Jud. 6:25-32), Gideon had to begin at home by tearing down his father’s idols before God could use him to rout the Midianites. At the heart of idolatry is using spiritual powers for your own advantage. In this sense, many professing Christians try to use God for personal success or to gain whatever blessing they’re looking for. If He comes through, they thank Him and put Him back on the shelf until the next time they need Him. If He doesn’t come through, they look for another god who can deliver the goods. But trusting God means repenting of trying to use Him for our own agenda and submitting to Jesus as Lord, even if it means suffering and martyrdom.

Second, trusting God requires knowing His power on behalf of His people in the past and His promise of power for what He calls us to do. The prophet rehearsed the familiar story of how God had delivered Israel from Egypt. Gideon knew that story, but he didn’t yet see how God would work in the current gloomy situation. The angel promised that he would “defeat Midian as one man” (Jud. 6:16), which either meant “all at once” or “as easily as one man could be defeated.” Repeatedly in Scripture God reminds His servants that nothing is too difficult for Him to do (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27; Matt. 19:26; Luke 1:37).

Third, trusting God requires knowing God’s purpose for your future. I’m not talking about knowing all the details of how He will direct your future! Rather, I’m talking about knowing in some way how God wants to use you in His kingdom purposes. The angel first told Gideon (Jud. 6:12), “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” Gideon probably looked around to see if He was talking to someone else! At that point, Gideon wasn’t a valiant warrior. He was a defeated coward, threshing out wheat in a winepress. But God calls His servants by what He will make them, not by what they are when He first calls them. Jesus called fickle Peter “a rock” and promised to build His church on Peter’s confession (Matt. 16:16-18). Paul called the carnal Corinthians “saints,” or “holy ones,” even though at that point they were far from holy (1 Cor. 1:2). In Ephesians 1-3 he sets forth our glorious position in Christ before he exhorts us (Eph. 4-6) how to walk in light of that position. He tells us, “Here is who you are in Christ; now, live that way.”

The angel specifically told Gideon that He was sending him to defeat the Midianites (Jud. 6:14). You might wish that God spoke directly to you like that to clarify what He wants you to do. But in general terms, He says to us (1 Pet. 4:10), “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” If you don’t know what your gift is, start serving somewhere and the Lord will direct and refine you in the process. Your gift will be something you enjoy doing (not that it’s always easy!) and it ministers to others.

Fourth, trusting God requires knowing His presence in your daily life. Twice (Jud. 6:12, 16) the angel of the Lord promised Gideon that He would be with him. If God is with us and He is for us, then who can stand against us (Rom. 8:31)? Both David Livingstone, the intrepid missionary to the interior of Africa, and John Paton, who lived among the cannibals of the New Hebrides Islands, relied heavily on Jesus’ promise in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20), “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Livingstone said, “On these words I staked everything, and they never failed!” Paton buried his wife and a short time later, their infant son, not long after they arrived in the South Seas. He said that in danger and in grief, he was sustained by Jesus’ promise, “Lo, I am with you always.” (Both stories are in A Frank Boreham Treasure [Moody Press], compiled by Peter Gunther, pp. 107, 127-129.) Today the New Hebrides, now known as Vanuatu, is one-third Presbyterian, making it the most Presbyterian country in the world!

Fifth, trusting God requires knowing that we are at peace with Him through the sacrifice of His Son for us. It is not clear what Gideon intended by bringing the food offering to the angel. Perhaps at first he viewed it as a hospitality gesture. But when the angel touched the food and it was burned up and then the angel disappeared, Gideon was afraid that he would die, because he had seen the Lord. But the Lord told him (Judges 6:23), “Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die.” Then we read (Jud. 6:24): “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and named it The Lord is Peace.”

You cannot trust God to use you in serving Him until you know that you are at peace with Him through trusting in the sacrifice of His Son. Paul wrote (Rom. 5:1), “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If your faith is in Christ and His sacrifice for your sins, then you are at peace with God. Even in the darkest of times, He wants to use you in your weakness as you trust Him, to help accomplish His sovereign purpose for His glory.

Conclusion

Our world, our nation, and our community are spiritually dark. Perhaps you’re going through a spiritually dark time personally. You can know that God is at work even if you don’t see immediate evidence of it. He wants you to trust Him to use the gifts He has entrusted to you as a part of His plan to be glorified through His church. Hudson Taylor, the pioneer missionary to China, said (goodreads.com/author/quotes/4693730.James_ Hudson_Taylor), “God uses men [he meant women, too] who are weak and feeble enough to lean on him.” That’s how God works in spiritually dark times!

Application Points

  1. Think of a dark time in your life when you later realized that God was at work. What did you learn through this time?
  2. How can you discover your spiritual gifts so that you know how God wants to use you?
  3. Read a good biography of a missionary (David Livingstone, John Paton, Hudson Taylor; for others, see my bibliography on the church website). How did he or she trust God in dark times?
  4. Some Christian psychologists say that telling someone to trust God is “worthless medicine.” Agree/disagree? Why?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2020, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christian Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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