3. Worshiping, Winning, but Wandering (Judges 7:15-23; 8:22-35)Related Media
Gideon, Lesson 3
January 26, 2020
I enjoy reading Christian biographies, but some biographies from the late 19th or early 20th centuries read more like eulogies than biographies. The authors did not want to expose any of their heroes’ flaws. They thought that to reveal any of their shortcomings would somehow detract from the shining example that they wanted readers to emulate. I read one such biography last year where you got the impression that the missionary walked on water!
But thankfully the Bible paints its heroes’ warts and all. It gives us the glowing stories of their victories, but it also relates the grim reality of their failures. In the story of Gideon, we see him worshiping and then winning a great victory. But the story doesn’t end there. We also see him wandering off the path spiritually, resulting in defection for the people whom he previously had led out of idolatry. Here Gideon is worshiping (7:15); he is winning (7:16-23); but sadly, he ends up wandering (8:22-35). To summarize:
God uses worshipers who trust and obey Him to win great victories, but even worshipers must be vigilant against wandering spiritually.
1. God wants us to become worshipers before we attempt to work great victories for Him.
Gideon’s worship began when he realized that he had seen the angel of the Lord face to face. He was afraid that he would die, but the Lord said to him (Judges 6:23), “Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die.” As a response, Gideon built an altar to the Lord and named it, “The Lord is Peace” (6:24). You cannot truly worship God or serve Him until you have peace with Him through trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1).
We next encounter Gideon worshiping after the Lord told him to go down to the Midianite camp just prior to the battle. Because He did not want Israel to think that they had won the victory by their own power, the Lord had directed Gideon to reduce his army from 32,000 warriors first to 10,000 and then to a mere 300 to fight against 135,000 Midianites. With each reduction in forces, Gideon’s faith and the faith of his remaining men had to grow, but the Lord knew that their fear was also growing. So, knowing Gideon’s fear, the Lord directed him to take his servant and go down to the edge of the Midianite camp.
There, in God’s gracious providence, Gideon overheard a Midianite warrior relating to his friend a dream where a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the Midianite camp and demolished one of their tents. His friend interpreted the dream (7:14), “This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand.” In response (7:15), “When Gideon heard the account of the dream and its interpretation, he bowed in worship. He returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise, for the Lord has given the camp of Midian into your hands.’”
This incident shows that worship can and should take place anywhere and at any time. It does not need to be reserved for religious services. Jesus told the Samaritan woman (John 4:23-24),
“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The Father seeks those who worship Him in spirit and truth. Since that is what God seeks, it should be what you seek. Is your main goal in life to become a worshiper of God in spirit and truth?
But what does this mean? Should we all join a monastery where we spend hours every day in prayer and worship? Obviously, if that were the requirement, few could be true worshipers. In my opinion, one of the best books on worship is John MacArthur’s The Ultimate Priority [Moody Press]. His full definition of worship is (p. 127), “Worship is our innermost being responding with praise for all that God is, through our attitudes, actions, thoughts, and words, based on the truth of God as he has revealed Himself.” His more concise definition is (p. 147): “Worship is all that we are, reacting rightly to all that He is.” He also (ibid.) cites William Temple’s eloquent description of worship: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
My own definition, which I worked out before I read MacArthur, is: Worship is an attitude and/or feeling of reverence, awe, gratitude, and love toward God resulting from a realization of who He is and who we are. I came up with that definition after reading A. W. Tozer’s excellent sermon, “Worship: The Missing Jewel of the Evangelical Church” [Christian Publications]. At first, I resisted Tozer’s contention (p. 8) that “worship means to feel in the heart.” But by the end of the sermon, he convinced me. True worship, as MacArthur defines it, is the response of our innermost being (which includes our emotions) to who God is. And when we see who He is as revealed in His Word, we instantly become aware of who we are in His holy presence.
You see this throughout Scripture. When the Lord appeared to Job after all of Job’s trials and rehearsed His mighty power and sovereignty over all creation, Job’s response was to repent and humble himself before the Almighty (Job 40:4-5; 42:1-6). When Isaiah saw the vision of the Lord on His throne with the seraphim crying out (Isa. 6:3), “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory,” Isaiah’s instant response was (6:5), “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” When the Lord Jesus provided the miraculous catch of fish, Peter fell at His feet and said (Luke 5:8), “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” When the apostle John, who had laid his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, saw the risen Lord Jesus in His glory, he said (Rev. 1:17), “I fell at His feet as a dead man.” When we get a true glimpse of who God is, who we are, and His grace for us at the cross, we are overwhelmed with reverence, awe, gratitude, and love for Him. That’s worship!
In our text, Gideon saw God’s mighty power in bringing him into the Midianite camp at just the moment that the soldier was relating his unusual dream. At the same time, Gideon saw how he had been doubting God by asking for repeated signs that would confirm that the Lord meant what He had clearly promised. His immediate response was to bow right there in worship. God wanted Gideon to worship before He sent him to work.
Many years ago, before I began to serve the Lord as a pastor, Marla and I were privileged to hear the godly pastor, Alan Redpath. Dr. Redpath told about a time in his fifties when his ministry was thriving as never before. He had many important speaking engagements lined up. But then he had a major stroke. As he lay in the hospital, he kept asking the Lord, “Why? Why did You allow this to happen to me just now, when I have all of these wonderful opportunities to serve You?” I don’t recall if he heard an audible voice, but he said that the Lord clearly told him, “Alan, you’ve gotten your work ahead of your worship!”
That statement impacted me for life! Although I haven’t always practiced it and there is a sense in which we’re always growing to know more of who God is and who we are as we study His Word, I have always come back to that profound insight: God is more interested in my worship than in my work. I pray that the Holy Spirit will burn that priority into your heart as well!
2. God can win great victories for His people through a remnant who worship, trust, and obey Him.
It’s interesting that up to this point, the Lord has given specific instructions to Gideon regarding his initial sacrifice (6:20); tearing down his father’s idolatrous altar to Baal and constructing an altar to the Lord in its place (6:25-26); calling together his troops and then thinning them out (6:34; 7:2-7); and, going down to the Midianite camp to hear the prophetic dream (7:9-14). But now, regarding the specifics of how to conduct the battle, there is no specific word from God. Many commentators assume that the Lord told Gideon to use the pitchers, torches, and trumpets. Maybe He did, but it’s not recorded in the story.
My observation from this fact is that the Lord is willing to work with a man who is a worshiper. He allows His holy name to be placed beside that of a man who worships Him. When the 300 warriors smash their pitchers, blow their trumpets, and wave their torches, they cry out (7:20), “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” Probably the Midianite warrior’s dream and its interpretation had spread through the camp to such an extent that there was some fear among them at the name and reputation of Gideon’s God and of Gideon.
So the startling wakeup in the middle of the night with smashing pitchers, blowing trumpets, waving torches, and the war cry of 300 men surrounding the camp sent the Midianites into full panic mode. In the dark of night and utter confusion, God set the Midianites’ swords against one another (7:22). Thousands were slaughtered. The survivors fled into the night. Gideon sent out the call for more soldiers to pursue them. By the time they had crossed the Jordan River, only 15,000 of the 135,000 remained (8:10).
What can we learn through this great victory story? Some commentators spiritualize it by observing that we are the pitchers who must be broken before God can use us. When we are broken, the fire of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ shines through us and the trumpet of gospel preaching sounds forth. While those are all biblical truths, I doubt that the Lord meant for us to read all those insights into this story. The main point, as I stated in the heading of this section, is that God can work great victories for His people through a remnant who worship, trust, and obey Him.
God could have brought about this victory by striking all the Midianites dead in the night, as He later did in response to Hezekiah’s prayer with Sennacherib’s army that was surrounding Jerusalem (2 Kings 19). But normally, God uses His weak, outnumbered people who worship, trust, and obey Him. We see this in Israel’s history when King Asa with an army of 580,000 men faced a million-man Ethiopian army (2 Chron. 14:11):
Then Asa called to the Lord his God and said, “Lord, there is no one besides You to help in the battle between the powerful and those who have no strength; so help us, O Lord our God, for we trust in You, and in Your name have come against this multitude. O Lord, You are our God; let not man prevail against You.”
In response the Lord routed the Ethiopians (2 Chron. 14:12). But the Israelite army had to fight to win the battle. In the story of Gideon, after the Lord brought confusion and had the Midianites slaughtering off each other, Israel still had to rally more troops and pursue them in the mop up operation. So God uses means, but we should never trust in the means. And, we often tend to overrate numbers. The Lord can deliver great victories through a small remnant of those who worship, trust, and obey Him.
So never discount what the Lord can do through you as you trust in Him! A familiar quote from E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) is relevant (by “men,” I’m sure that he would have included women; from: goodreads.com/author/quotes/942850.E_M_Bounds):
What the Church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer.
The most effective prayers come from hearts of worship, trust, and obedience to the Lord.
So Gideon and his few men won a great victory for the Lord. If the story had ended there, it would be like a fairy tale that ends, “And they all lived happily ever after.” But there is a sad ending to the story that serves as a warning to all who serve the Lord:
3. Even worshipers who see God win great victories must be vigilant against wandering spiritually.
After the initial rout of the Midianites, Gideon had to face the unwarranted anger of the men of Ephraim, who challenged him for not including them in the original battle. Gideon could have answered them harshly, but instead, he wisely replied with a gentle word that turned away their wrath (8:1-3). He also had to contend with the Israelites of Succoth and Penuel, who refused to help with provisions as he sought to finish pursuing the Midianites (8:4-17). Commentators are divided on whether he dealt with them properly or too harshly. Then we read (Jud. 8:22-23):
Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.” But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.”
So far, so good! It would have been a great temptation for Gideon to have accepted their offer. It would have appealed to his pride to establish a dynasty in Israel. He could have reasoned that the people needed a man of strong faith like himself to preserve the victory over Midian and to stop the idolatry in Israel. But Gideon must have realized that the people had not sought the Lord for guidance on this major new proposal. In fact, they wrongly attributed the victory to Gideon (8:22), when he knew that the Lord had given the victory. So he wisely refused their offer.
Later, when Israel asked Samuel the prophet appoint a king for them, their reason was so that they could be “like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). The Lord gave permission to Samuel, but explained (1 Sam. 8:7), “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.” He directed Samuel to appoint King Saul, who proved to be an unfaithful king. The Lord probably chose Saul to discipline Israel for rejecting God before He finally chose David, the man after His own heart.
But even though Gideon rightly rejected the offer of becoming their king, his subsequent lifestyle looked like that of a king. Against God’s design for marriage, Gideon imitated many pagan kings by procuring a large harem. His wives provided him with 70 sons and no doubt many daughters (8:30). After his death his son by a concubine, Abimelech, slaughtered all but one of his other sons. Abimelech means “my father the king;” He tried to become king over Israel (Judges 9), which perhaps he learned from his father’s lifestyle (Leon Wood, Distressing Days of the Judges [Zondervan], p. 229).
To support that many children, Gideon had to have an income like a king. He may have gotten the start to his wealth when he asked his fellow warriors to give him their gold earrings from the spoil. He collected 1,700 shekels of gold (between 40-70 pounds; 8:26). With some of that gold, Gideon made an ephod, which was like a vest or apron worn by the high priest (Exod. 28:6-14). The Urim and Thummin were in the ephod, which the priest used to determine the will of God.
We don’t know Gideon’s motives for doing this. Perhaps he thought that the high priest in Israel lived too far away at Shiloh and the people needed a priest closer at hand. Shiloh was in the territory of Ephraim, which had been hostile toward Gideon after his victory. So perhaps he didn’t want to go there to inquire of the Lord. Perhaps he sincerely hoped that he would be able to keep the people from Baal worship by acting as a localized priest. The text doesn’t reveal his motives.
But it does tell us the tragic outcome of his ephod (Judges 8:27): “All Israel played the harlot with it there, so that it became a snare to Gideon and his household.” “To play the harlot” is a phrase that refers to idolatry. Perhaps when he wasn’t wearing the ephod in some “worship” capacity, Gideon set it up on public display. Israel began to treat it like an idol. Probably they prayed to it to try to get whatever they wanted. They worshiped it rather than the Lord. But Gideon had no warrant for acting as a priest for his city or tribe. The tabernacle, where God’s presence was manifested, was at Shiloh, not with Gideon and his ephod in Ophrah. Even if Israel’s priests were not acting as they should, Gideon had no basis to offer an alternate place of worship in his town. He should have stopped the people from their idolatrous worship of the ephod.
I conclude with seven lessons that we should take away from Gideon’s sad failure:
(1) Don’t trust in spiritual leaders, even if they have accomplished great things for God. Trust in God alone! While God uses gifted leaders, they are vulnerable to pride, lust, greed, selfishness, and many other sins. If you trust in them and they fall into sin, you may be disillusioned and fall away from the Lord.
(2) Pray for Christian leaders to walk daily with the Lord. There are no spiritual blowouts; only slow leaks. A man who walks daily with the Lord in His Word and in prayer, judging his own sins on the heart level, will not fall into serious sin that leads his family and the family of God into idolatry.
(3) Past performance is no guarantee of future faithfulness. I would like to think that when I’ve followed the Lord and seen Him work great victories through my faithfulness, I build up immunity against sin. But David’s horrible fall with Bathsheba shows that that is not true.
(4) Pray for yourself and guard your heart by walking in reality with the Lord every day. Proverbs 4:23 commands, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” Sadly, Solomon who wrote that did not follow his own advice. He allowed his many foreign wives to turn his heart away from the Lord (1 Kings 11:4).
(5) Follow God’s Word, not any humanly devised religion. The ephod that Gideon set up lacked a means of atonement for sin, which is at the heart of how sinners must be reconciled with the holy God. It produced an outward form of religion, but it could not provide forgiveness for their sins or lead them to know the Lord personally.
(6) Good things used the wrong way can subtly lead to serious defection later. The ephod was a good thing if used properly by the high priest at the tabernacle, but used wrongly by Gideon it became an idol and snare. It was external religion that people elevated above a heart relationship with God. Even good things like Bible reading, prayer, or evangelism can become external activities that lead to pride because we do these things.
(7) Success is more spiritually dangerous than failure. Gideon had worshiped God when the angel appeared to him. He worshiped again when God let him hear the dream of the Midianite soldier about Gideon’s victory. But now that he won the victory, there is no report of worship on his or the people’s part, except for the false worship of the ephod. Be on guard if you enjoy success!
You cannot serve God before you come to the cross of Christ as a guilty sinner and trust in His death for your sins. Once you’ve trusted Him, He wants you to become a worshiper who wins spiritual victories by trusting and obeying Him.
- Why is worshiping God in spirit and truth the foundation for all work for Him?
- Where is the balance between using good methods and yet not trusting in the methods?
- Discuss with a friend: There are no spiritual blowouts; only slow leaks.
- Practically, what does it mean to guard your heart always?
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