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First Things First (Judges 6:1-35)

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Introduction

Those who know me well know that I have a tendency to come down hard on some Bible characters who are generally more highly esteemed. In particular, I’m thinking of bad boys and girls like Jonah, Mordecai and Esther, and Naomi. Therefore, when we come to the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges, you are probably expecting me to pounce on Gideon as another one of the bad boys of the Bible.

I’m not going to tell you that Gideon is a stellar example of faith and obedience, a man whose example we should all follow. But I have to confess a strange sense of compassion toward this fellow. I think it is partly because I find that my weaknesses are very much like his. Let’s face it, who among us tends to identify with Paul? If we are honest, most of us would have to admit that we much more easily identify with Peter than Paul. Peter is the fellow who is always talking when he would best keep quiet, and consequently, he’s frequently caught with his foot in his mouth. While he assures Jesus of his faithfulness, even unto death, he ends up denying his Lord.2 No wonder we can identify with Peter more easily than Paul. And for this same reason, we should be easily able to identify with Gideon as well.

In our text, we will encounter many of the elements which are typical of the times of the judges:3 complacency toward God and His Word; peaceful coexistence with the Canaanites leading to the embracing of their beliefs and practices, particularly the worship of their gods; divine discipline in the form of being handed over to one of their enemies; crying out to God in their time of oppression; and God graciously raising up a deliverer to save them from their distress. But in addition to these common elements, there are also some unique dimensions to our account, which I will attempt to point out as we go along.

In this lesson, we will consider each section of our text, looking for significant observations and relationships. Then, having looked at the parts of our text, we shall seek to discover how they connect in such a fashion as to portray an important lesson (or lessons). Finally, we will conclude by considering some of the ways this text applies to our daily lives. Join us, then, in considering another exciting chapter in the history of God’s chosen people during the period of the judges.

The Setting

Judges 6:1-6

1 The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord turned them over to Midian for seven years. 2 The Midianites overwhelmed Israel. Because of Midian the Israelites made shelters for themselves in the hills, as well as caves and strongholds. 3 Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites, and the people from the east would attack them. 4 They invaded the land and devoured its crops all the way to Gaza. They left nothing for the Israelites to eat, and they took away the sheep, oxen, and donkeys. 5 When they invaded with their cattle and tents, they were as thick as locusts. Neither they nor their camels could be counted. They came to devour the land. 6 Israel was so severely weakened by Midian that the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help (Judges 6:1-6).4

We are hardly surprised to read, once again, that the Israelites have returned to their evil ways, at least as God sees things. Since every man did what was right in his own eyes, it is likely that the Israelites did not see their sins as evil. By the way, the author does not name the sins to which he refers here; he speaks of them only in generalities, and for good reason. We already know Israel’s sins from the pattern set forth in chapter 2 and from the chapters which have preceded our text. We know, for example, that the Israelites would have disregarded God’s Word and would have worshipped the gods of the Canaanites. In addition, they would have intermarried with the Canaanites.

If the Israelites have acted as we would have predicted, so does God. He turned the Israelites over to Midian for seven years of harsh treatment. Let us first refresh our memories as to who the Midianites were, so that we will better be able to comprehend the kind of suffering they imposed on the Israelites.

Midian was the son of Abraham and Keturah, one of Abraham’s concubines (Genesis 25:2-6). It was a Midianite caravan that “happened by” when Joseph’s brothers were about to kill him, prompting them to sell Joseph to these traders instead of taking his life. These traders then took Joseph to Egypt where they sold him as a slave (Genesis 37:28, 36). When Moses fled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian, he went to Midian where he encountered a Midianite priest. Moses married his daughter, Zipporah, and had two sons by her (Exodus 2:15-22). Moses’ father-in-law accompanied the Israelites into the land of Canaan, and so it is that we find the Kenites mentioned twice already (1:16; 4:11, 17) in the Book of Judges. The Midianites also were involved in the seduction of the Israelites in the Book of Numbers.5

The Midianites were a nomadic people who lived to the East (and Southeast) of Israel, across the Jordan. While the Midianites had been given military supremacy over Israel, their “occupation” of Israel was quite different from the occupation of other foreign nations such as the Moabites. The Moabites gained military supremacy over Israel and then established certain military outposts. Here, Moabite soldiers would be stationed to enforce Moabite control. If the Israelites behaved themselves and paid their annual tribute, they were granted a certain measure of freedom.

It was quite different under the domination of the Midianites. For one thing, we should observe that no one king is named. I don’t doubt that the Midianites had their leaders, but their nomadic lifestyle must have resulted in a less centralized government.6 The Midianites did not exact a payment of tribute, as the Moabites had done; rather the Midianite hordes simply migrated to Israel whenever it served their purposes. They would time their “return visits” to Canaan in accordance with the growing season. When harvest time arrived, so did the Midianites, and with an appetite for everything the Israelites possessed. They took all of their crops they could get their hands on; the Midianites’ cattle grazed on what was left. And any Israelite cattle were added to their own herds. When they had consumed all there was, the Midianites moved on, leaving the Israelites in desperate straits.

It is no wonder that the Israelites sought to disappear, along with their crops and cattle, into the hills before the Midianites arrived. They gathered up what little they could and headed for the hills, literally, seeking refuge in caves and mountain hideouts. To some degree, this had happened earlier when Jabin and the Canaanites had cruelly oppressed the Israelites. And so we read:

6 “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,

in the days of Jael, the roads were abandoned;

travelers took to winding paths.

7 Village life in Israel ceased,

ceased until I, Deborah, arose,

arose a mother in Israel.

8 When they chose new gods,

war came to the city gates,

and not a shield or spear was seen

among forty thousand in Israel (Judges 5:6-8, NIV; emphasis mine).

My sense is that under Midianite domination, things had gotten as bad as Israel had ever seen it. And so we read that the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help. What is interesting, and somewhat unique, is that God did not immediately raise up a judge to deliver them as He had done before;7 instead, God sent a prophet to rebuke them.

A Divine Rebuke

Judges 6:7-10

7 When the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help because of Midian, 8 he sent a prophet to the Israelites. He said to them, “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I8 brought you up from Egypt and took you out of that place of slavery. 9 I rescued you from Egypt’s power and from the power of all who oppressed you. I drove them out before you and gave their land to you. 10 I said to you, “I am the Lord your God! Do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are now living!” But you have disobeyed me’” (Judges 6:7-10).

It is perhaps worthwhile to point out that the unnamed prophet whom God sent was not Israel’s new leader, judge, or deliverer. The deliverer would be Gideon, but he has not yet been introduced to the reader. I would like to suggest that what we find here is paralleled in the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah was the prophetess; Barak was the leader and deliverer. In our text, the Israelites cry out, hoping for a deliverer from their oppression by the Midianites. This prophet is sent to remind them that God is their ultimate Deliverer. And so he reviews a few of those deliverances of the past. God delivered the Israelites from the oppression they suffered under Egyptian domination. He also delivered His people from those who opposed them as they made their way to possess the Promised Land. And it was also God who warned them not to worship the gods of the Amorites.9

In one sense, the worship of heathen gods was quite pragmatic. They worshipped certain gods for rain, or for fertility, or for victory in battle. These “gods” were the deliverers of the heathen. But it is the God of Israel who is truly – and exclusively – their Deliverer. Thus they must not look to anyone other than God alone for deliverance. This command they had disobeyed, and their disobedience is the reason for their oppression.

It is interesting to me that the prophet’s message (at least as reported here) contained no call to repentance. Neither is there any indication that the Israelites responded in a negative or positive way. The message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

One might come to the conclusion that the salvation which is soon to come in our text proves that no repentance is really necessary. I would differ and suggest that God is gracious here, but His grace is evident in His kindness in bringing about Israel’s repentance, before He grants deliverance. God works through Gideon to change the heart of his father, Joash, then the hearts of his clan, then of his tribe, and finally the hearts of several other tribes as well. See if the text does not develop nicely when viewed in this way.

Between God and Gideon

Judges 6:11-27

11 The Lord’s angelic messenger10 came and sat down under the oak tree in Ophrah owned by Joash the Abiezrite. He arrived while Joash’s son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress so he could hide it from the Midianites. 12 The Lord’s messenger appeared and said to him, “The Lord is with you,11 courageous warrior!” 13 Gideon said to him, “Pardon me, but if the Lord is with us, why has such disaster overtaken us? Where are all his miraculous deeds our ancestors told us about? They said, ‘Did the Lord not bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and handed us over to Midian.” 14 Then the Lord himself turned to him and said, “You have the strength. Deliver Israel from the power of the Midianites! Have I not sent you?” 15 Gideon said to him, “But Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Just look! My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my family.” 16 The Lord said to him, “Ah, but I will be with you! You will strike down the whole Midianite army.” 17 Gideon said to him, “If you really are pleased with me, then give me a sign as proof that it is really you speaking with me. 18 Do not leave this place until I come back with a gift and present it to you.” The Lord said, “I will stay here until you come back.”

19 Gideon went and prepared a young goat, along with unleavened bread made from an ephah of flour. He put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot. He brought the food to him under the oak tree and presented it to him. 20 God’s messenger said to him, “Put the meat and unleavened bread on this rock, and pour out the broth.” Gideon did as instructed. 21 The Lord’s messenger touched the meat and the unleavened bread with the tip of his staff. Fire flared up from the rock and consumed the meat and unleavened bread. The Lord’s messenger then disappeared.

22 When Gideon realized that it was the Lord’s messenger, he said, “Oh no! Master, Lord! I have seen the Lord’s messenger face to face!” 23 The Lord said to him, “You are safe! Do not be afraid! You are not going to die!” 24 Gideon built an altar for the Lord there, and named it “The Lord is on friendly terms with me.” To this day it is still there in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

25 That night the Lord said to him, “Take the bull from your father’s herd, as well as a second bull, one that is seven years old. Pull down your father’s Baal altar and cut down the nearby Asherah pole. 26 Then build an altar for the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold according to the proper pattern. Take the second bull and offer it as a burnt sacrifice on the wood from the Asherah pole that you cut down.” 27 So Gideon took ten of his servants and did just as the Lord had told him. He was too afraid of his father’s family and the men of the city to do it in broad daylight, so he waited until nighttime (Judges 6:11-27).

Reading this portion is something like watching a tennis match. Your head turns from one side of the tennis court to the other, and then back, over and over and over again. It is almost a re-run of God’s calling of Moses in Exodus 3 and 4. Both Moses and Gideon seem to work hard at finding reasons why God should not choose them as Israel’s deliverer. It also reminds me of Exodus 33 and 34, where God promises to be with Moses personally (the “you” is singular, not plural), but Moses wants God’s assurance that He will be with His people collectively. I am puzzled why the commentators I have consulted have not called attention to the fact that the “you’s” found in verses 12-16 of our text are singular, referring to Gideon alone and not to the Israelites collectively. It is apparent that Gideon finally gets this in verse 15, which prompts him to object even more strongly. With these observations, let us see how this text unfolds.

After the prophet appeared with his divine review and rebuke, the Angel of the LORD appears to Gideon while he is threshing wheat in a winepress (verse 11). I should not have to tell you that when one was threshing wheat in those days, it was done in a high place, out in the open, so that the wind would carry away the chaff when the grain was threshed by treading on it and then tossing it into the air. A winepress was no place to thresh wheat! That would be like trying to use a screwdriver to drive a nail. Gideon used the winepress so that he could keep out of sight of the Midianites, who, if they saw him, would come and take his grain. Gideon’s actions were indicative of how bad things had become in Israel.

And so the Angel of the LORD appears and sits beneath the oak tree in Ophrah, looking on as Gideon is making the effort to thresh grain out of sight. The Angel then approaches Gideon with these amazing words, “The Lord is with you, courageous warrior!” Gideon hardly looked the part of a “courageous warrior” at this moment, but I don’t believe that the Angel is mocking him. He is assuring Gideon of God’s presence and power, which will eventually make him a mighty warrior.

Gideon seems to sidestep the fact that God was singling him out from all the rest of the nation and chooses instead to focus on God’s dealings with the nation, as though the Angel had said, “The LORD is with Israel, you mighty man of valor.” Gideon’s response in verse 13 is very revealing. It tells us, for example, that Gideon has been taught about God and Hs miraculous deeds for Israel in the past. In a sense, Gideon repeats the words of the prophet regarding God’s powerful deliverance of the Israelites in the past. But he does so in a way that turns God’s words upside-down. The prophet’s words were spoken to rebuke the Israelites for disobeying God’s command not to worship the Canaanite gods. Gideon uses God’s past dealings to rebuke God for forsaking His people, and (it would seem) this also provided Gideon with an excuse to remain on the sidelines, rather than to engage the Canaanites in battle.

God will have none of this, although His words are amazingly gentle and gracious: “Then the Lord himself turned to him and said, “You have the strength. Deliver Israel from the power of the Midianites! Have I not sent you?” (verse 14) Did Gideon protest that God had not delivered Israel from Midianite oppression? Then here is God’s promise to be with Gideon, empowering him so that he could deliver his people from their bondage. God commissions Gideon to perform this task – God has sent him.

Suddenly God’s use of the singular (“you”) sinks in. “Now just hold on a minute,” Gideon objects, “I am not the man for the job you have in mind.” And so Gideon appeals to his insignificance and lack of power and influence due to his status in the family (verse 15).12 And all this after God has just assured him of His presence and power (“You have the strength. Deliver Israel from the power of the Midianites.”), and of His divine commission (“Have I not sent you?”).

God brushed aside Gideon’s “Who am I?” objections, giving him this assurance: “Ah, but I will be with you! You will strike down the whole Midianite army” (verse 16). Hearing these words, Gideon requests a sign from God. Listen carefully to what he asks for and how God provides him with the requested sign:

17 Gideon said to him, “If you really are pleased with me, then give me a sign as proof that it is really you speaking with me. 18 Do not leave this place until I come back with a gift and present it to you.” The Lord said, “I will stay here until you come back.”

19 Gideon went and prepared a young goat, along with unleavened bread made from an ephah of flour. He put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot. He brought the food to him under the oak tree and presented it to him. 20 God’s messenger said to him, “Put the meat and unleavened bread on this rock, and pour out the broth.” Gideon did as instructed. 21 The Lord’s messenger touched the meat and the unleavened bread with the tip of his staff. Fire flared up from the rock and consumed the meat and unleavened bread. The Lord’s messenger then disappeared.

22 When Gideon realized that it was the Lord’s messenger, he said, “Oh no! Master, Lord! I have seen the Lord’s messenger face to face!” 23 The Lord said to him, “You are safe! Do not be afraid! You are not going to die!” 24 Gideon built an altar for the Lord there, and named it “The Lord is on friendly terms with me.” To this day it is still there in Ophrah of the Abiezrites (Judges 6:17-24).

Gideon now grants that God has chosen him to deliver the Israelites. His concern here is not that God will actually give him the victory (such concerns will surface later), but that it is actually the God of Israel who is speaking to him. He asks for confirmation that it is really Israel’s God who is speaking to him.

Now this may sound foolish to you and to me. It may sound cowardly (and perhaps there is a bit of that as well). But we need to understand his request in the light of the world in which Gideon lived. From what we have already seen, Gideon was well aware of God’s deliverances of Israel in the past. I don’t believe that Gideon or many Israelites of that day had totally “subtracted” God from their lives. Their sin was to “add” the worship of heathen deities. I’ve seen the mindset that leads to such decisions in my own ministry. I once visited an elderly couple who wanted to be baptized. As I inquired about their motivation, they made it clear that they had done almost everything they could think of and they just “didn’t want to leave any stone unturned.” So, too, the Israelites wanted to cover all their spiritual bases, and so they worshipped God and the Canaanite deities. Now, deity is speaking to him, and he wants to be absolutely certain it is not an embarrassing case of mistaken identity.

Just how did Gideon expect God to give him a sign as he offered a sacrifice? What was he expecting? I would call your attention to two other events recorded in the Old Testament, the first in Judges 13 and the second in 1 Kings 18. In Judges 13, the Angel of the LORD appeared to Manoah’s wife, the woman who was soon to become Samson’s mother:

15 Manoah said to the Lord’s messenger, “Please stay here awhile, so we can prepare a young goat for you to eat.” 16 The Lord’s messenger said to Manoah, “If I stay, I will not eat your food. But if you want to make a burnt sacrifice to the Lord, you should offer it.” (He said this because Manoah did not know that he was the Lord’s messenger.) 17 Manoah said to the Lord’s messenger, “Tell us your name, so we can honor you when your announcement comes true.” 18 The Lord’s messenger said to him, “You should not ask me my name, because you cannot comprehend it.” 19 Manoah took a young goat and a grain offering and offered them on a rock to the Lord. The Lord’s messenger did an amazing thing as Manoah and his wife watched. 20 As the flame went up from the altar toward the sky, the Lord’s messenger went up in it while Manoah and his wife watched. They fell facedown to the ground. 21 The Lord’s messenger did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. After all this happened Manoah realized that the visitor had been the Lord’s messenger. 22 Manoah said to his wife, “We will certainly die, because we have seen a supernatural being!” 23 But his wife said to him, “If the Lord wanted to kill us, he would not have accepted the burnt offering and the grain offering from us. He would not have shown us all these things, or have spoken to us like this just now” (Judges 13:17-23).

Manoah also wanted to be certain as to the identity of the Angel of the LORD who had appeared to them, and so he asked the Angel to wait while they prepared a young goat as an offering, just as Gideon did. He asked the Angel for His name, but was not given the answer. Then when the offering was made to the LORD,” the Angel miraculously ascended into the sky in the flames. They knew for certain that this was the Angel of the LORD; this was the God of Israel who had appeared to them.

I will simply remind you of the second case, which is described in 1 Kings 18. Elijah challenged the false prophets and their gods to a contest on Mount Carmel. Let them offer a sacrifice to their god, Baal, and he would then offer a sacrifice to the God of Israel. The God/god who consumed the offering with fire would prove to be the one true God. The prophets of Baal sacrificed to their god according to their prescribed rituals, and nothing happened (other than the prophets abusing themselves to get their god’s attention). But when Elijah offered the (drenched) sacrifice to the God of Israel, He responded by consuming the entire sacrifice – bull, wood, rocks, and water – with fire! God had proven Himself to be God, God alone, by His response to Elijah’s offering.

I am convinced that Gideon believed that if it was the God of Israel who was speaking to him, He would do something miraculous when he offered a sacrifice in a way that was consistent with the Old Testament Law. He believed that if God was present in the worship of His people, He would make His presence known. And so he asked the Angel to wait as he prepared for this sacrificial offering. And Gideon was right! The Angel reached out with His staff and touched the sacrificial meal and fire sprang forth from the rock, consuming the sacrifice entirely. Now Gideon can proclaim this Angel to be the Sovereign God, the God of Israel. And knowing that this was God caused him to wonder how he could still be alive, since he had seen God face-to-face. Personally, I cannot fault Gideon for seeking this confirmation of God’s identity. Gideon then built an altar to the LORD and called it “The LORD is Peace.” That peace was the reason he was still alive.

Midnight Madness: Gideon Goes Public

Judges 6:25-27

25 That night the Lord said to him, “Take the bull from your father’s herd, as well as a second bull, one that is seven years old.13 Pull down your father’s Baal altar and cut down the nearby Asherah pole. 26 Then build an altar for the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold according to the proper pattern. Take the second bull and offer it as a burnt sacrifice on the wood from the Asherah pole that you cut down.” 27 So Gideon took ten of his servants and did just as the Lord had told him. He was too afraid of his father’s family and the men of the city to do it in broad daylight, so he waited until nighttime (Judges 6:25-27).

This was not a time for undercover faith. It was time for Gideon to go public with his faith, and so God called for a public act of worship. Just as God revealed His identity through Gideon’s worship, it was now time for Gideon to reveal his faith in a public act of worship. God instructed Gideon to take two bulls, at least one of which belonged to his father. A second bull was also to be used. This second bull not only assisted in the demolition of his father’s Baal altar, it was also offered up as a sacrifice, using the wood of the wooden Asherah pole for the firewood. One can hardly say that Gideon’s actions, carried out in the dark of night, were heroic. Nevertheless, Gideon did obey the Lord’s command. Using ten of his servants, Gideon did as God had instructed. There was now no turning back for Gideon. How the people of his clan would react is now about to be revealed.

Beyond Gideon

Judges 6:28-35

28 When the men of the city got up the next morning, they saw the Baal altar pulled down, the nearby Asherah pole cut down, and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar. 29 They said to one another, “Who did this?” They investigated the matter thoroughly and concluded that Gideon son of Joash had done it. 30 The men of the city said to Joash, “Bring out your son, so we can execute him! He pulled down the Baal altar and cut down the nearby Asherah pole.” 31 But Joash said to all those who confronted him, “Must you fight Baal’s battles? Must you rescue him? Whoever takes up his cause will die by morning! If he really is a god, let him fight his own battles! After all, it was his altar that was pulled down.” 32 That very day Gideon’s father named him Jerub-Baal, because he had said, “Let Baal fight with him, for it was his altar that was pulled down.”

33 All the Midianites, Amalekites, and the people from the east assembled. They crossed the Jordan River and camped in the Jezreel Valley. 34 The Lord’s spirit took control of Gideon. He blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. 35 He sent messengers throughout Manasseh and summoned them to follow him as well. He also sent messengers throughout Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they came up to meet him (Judges 6:28-35).

What a slap in the face Gideon’s actions were to the gods of the Canaanites, namely Baal and Asherah. The Baal alter is torn down, the Asherah pole is likewise cut down and chopped into fire wood, and a bull (the symbol of Baal) is offered as a sacrifice on this spot. By his actions, Gideon has made a statement that can hardly be ignored.

You can imagine the surprise and consternation of the people of Ophrah when they awakened to find their Baal altar14 destroyed, their Asherah pole taken down and burned as firewood, and a prize bull sacrificed on a newly constructed altar. The bull – whether it belonged to Gideon’s father or someone else – would have been greatly valued. It was the equivalent of a farm tractor in those days. It could be used for plowing fields, and of course for tasks like pulling down Baal altars. Such a prize animal would have been especially valuable since it somehow had been kept from the grasp of the Midianites.

The “righteous indignation” of the people of Ophrah is amazing and informative. Think of it. The Law of Moses prescribed death for any who would turn the Israelites from the worship of God (see Deuteronomy 13). Here, the nation had rebelled against God by worshipping the gods of the Canaanites, and now they were ready to execute the Israelite who had torn down their objects of false worship. And mind you, those who were ready to kill Gideon were Israelites, not Canaanites. How far the people of God had fallen!

From this point on in our text, Gideon is no longer the focus of our author’s attention; it is his father, Joash, who steps into the spotlight here. One wonders what God’s Spirit had done to prepare Joash for this moment. He seems to be a leader in his clan, and the Baal altar and Asherah belong to him (6:25). Baal and Asherah (perhaps among others) are deities that one would worship in order to prosper, to have good rains, fertility, and victory in battle. These were the very blessings the Israelites had forfeited by forsaking fidelity to their one true God. Their Canaanite gods were not doing them any good. The prophet had made it clear why God was not blessing His people. Did Joash already have his doubts about the value of their idol worship?

Now, to be a faithful Baal worshipper Joash is obligated to put Gideon to death; more emphatically, the Abiezrites demand that Joash put him to death. Joash now takes his stand, not only with his son, but also with the God his son has chosen to follow exclusively. Baal, a god who was worshipped for being powerful, should be strong enough to defend himself, Joash argued. The fact that men had to defend the honor of their god betrayed the fact that their god was powerless to look after his own interests, let alone the interests of his worshippers. No, anyone who set out to harm his son would be put to death. And to underscore his stand, Joash renamed his son Jerub-Baal, which means “let Baal fight (or contend) with him.” From this point on, Gideon’s existence (with his new name) would be a constant insult and challenge to Baal. The fact that nothing bad happens to Gideon underscores the truth of his name.

The Abiezrites are Now Ready for War

Judges 6:33-35

33 All the Midianites, Amalekites, and the people from the east assembled. They crossed the Jordan River and camped in the Jezreel Valley. 34 The Lord’s spirit took control of Gideon. He blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. 35 He sent messengers throughout Manasseh and summoned them to follow him as well. He also sent messengers throughout Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they came up to meet him (Judges 6:33-35).

The Midianites, along with their “eastern allies,” assembled, apparently to reestablish their dominance over the Israelites. They crossed the Jordan River and assembled in the Jezreel Valley. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, empowering him to lead the Israelites in battle against this awesome military force. Gideon blew the trumpet to summon his fellow Abiezrites to follow him in battle. What a change has occurred here. Those who just recently demanded that Gideon be put to death now willingly follow him into battle with a vastly larger army. And this change of heart spread from Gideon’s clan to the entire tribe (or Manasseh), and when messengers were sent out to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, they likewise gathered for war.

Conclusion

Our text contains many lessons. Let me conclude by suggesting just a few of them.

It all began with one person. That’s the thought that first came to my mind as I reflected back on the message of this passage. It was the nation (at least several of the Israelite tribes) that turned from God to idols, and they were all badly in need of repentance. God started the process with a rebuke by one of His prophets, but then He raised up one man – Gideon – through whom He impacted many others. God first brought Gideon to the point where he forsook his worship of the Canaanite gods and entrusted himself completely to God. When his faith became public by his destruction of his father’s idols and his worship of the God of Israel, his father was now placed in the position of either defending his powerless gods or forsaking them. He, too, chose to trust in God. It seems clear that Joash’s faith was instrumental in bringing his (Abiezrite) clan to faith, and then the entire tribe of Manasseh, along with Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali.

The point I wish to make here is that it only takes one person to impact many, when that person entrusts himself (or herself) to God by following Him. Think of those folks throughout history whom God has used to impact the lives of many. This list is a long one, but we can mention men like Gideon, Luther and Calvin, and women like Deborah and Jael and Corrie ten Boom.

Those persons God uses to impact many others are most often not those we would have considered “most likely to succeed.” I can almost read your mind (only because I know my own thoughts). Some of you are thinking, “I know that God uses individuals to greatly impact others, but I’m not that kind of person. Who am I to think that God would use me mightily, like He used Gideon?” God wants you to see that Gideon was not really a person who was likely to succeed. He was the first to call this fact to God’s attention, hoping that it might get him off the hook. It didn’t. The entire Book of Judges (not to mention the rest of the Bible) reveals how God has used unlikely vessels to achieve His purposes, just as He employed unlikely means such as an pitchers, lamps, and trumpets, as well as an ox goad, a millstone, and the jawbone of an ass. This book is meant to teach us that the key to success is not having strong, self-assured people to lead, but having an all-powerful God to lead and to empower weak vessels.

Faltering obedience is nonetheless obedience. I know that ideally we would all like to obey God in such a way that it reflects well on us, but God is more interested in obedience that reflects well on Him, for it is He who is to receive the glory, not us. The ungodly seek their own glory; the godly seek God’s glory. As we observe Gideon’s obedience (midnight madness, really), it does not cause us to think of him as a hero – to “idolize” him. But whether his obedience was faltering or not, it was obedience, and that obedience reflected well upon God. A little faith in a great God is far better than great faith in oneself. God would much prefer that we haltingly obey Him than stubbornly disobey.

God works patiently through a unique process to make leaders from unlikely candidates. Here is a very important truth. It is God who draws men to faith in Himself. It is God, not men, who is great, and worthy of our praise. And it is God who patiently works in our lives to make us more like Himself. In our text, I see a great God who graciously works in the lives of unlikely people over a period of time to give them confidence in Himself and the boldness to stand alone in their faith and obedience to Him.

It is sometimes our weaknesses, rather than our strengths, that encourage others. We know that God uses our weakness to bring about His purposes and a way that glorifies Him:

Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me – so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).

I am encouraged by the “weakness” and frailty of Gideon’s life because I am weak and frail. Others may be encouraged by our weaknesses when they see God at work in our lives in spite of (and often by means of) our frailty. Be honest. Are you more encouraged by Peter or by Paul? Now I am greatly impressed with Paul’s boldness and courage, but I find that I much more readily identify with Peter. Peter is a man who all too often put his foot in his mouth and said the wrong thing. Here is a man who first denied his Lord, only then to be restored and to minister to others.15 When others witness the way God uses us in our weakness, they are encouraged that God may use them in their weakness as well. This does not excuse sin or careless living; indeed, it should encourage us to strive in God’s strength, knowing that He gives strength to the weak.

We learn from Gideon that we must put first things first. God does not bring deliverance to Israel until His people repent of their sin and put Him first; indeed, God delivers His people after they renounce their idolatry and worship Him alone. Our relationship with God is not only the most important thing there is, it is also the first thing that we must do. Jesus put it this way:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? 26 Look at the birds in the sky: They do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? 27 And which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life? 28 Why do you worry about clothing? Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! 30 And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, won’t he clothe you even more, you people of little faith? 31 So then, don’t worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the unconverted pursue these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:25-34, emphasis mine).

So, we must ask ourselves these very important questions: “Is God really first in my life? If not, what is? How do I make God first and foremost in my life?”

Our text challenges us to address two very important forces in our culture: pluralization and privatization. Pluralization is the process by which our culture accepts a wide diversity of beliefs and practices as having equal truth and merit. To some degree, this tolerance of the views of others is necessary in a free society. In terms of religion, for example, our country is made up of people of many faiths, and our system of government allows them to believe and to practice their faith as they choose, so long as they do not break the law and harm others. While it is necessary to accept the reality that many faiths are embraced in our nation, this does not mean that all of these faiths are equally valid and true. According to the Bible, and particularly our Lord Jesus, Christianity alone is true faith, and faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins is the only way to heaven.16 Men may believe what they wish, but only Christ saves, and only the Bible is God’s inspired Word.17

Privatization embraces pluralization and seeks to promote it. Our culture prefers to believe that all religions are of equal value and that all of them will eventually get you to heaven (or whatever you wish to call it). Thus, pluralization says that you can believe whatever you want, but privatization insists that you must not hold to your faith as exclusively true, and the “unpardonable Postmodern sin” is to attempt to “impose” your beliefs on others. Privatization insists that we keep our faith (whatever that might be) to ourselves. It is obvious, then, that privatization resists and opposes evangelization.

Our text exposes these contemporary beliefs and values as false. The Israelites of old were not given the freedom by God to believe in whatever or whomever they chose. They were commanded to believe only in the God who had saved them from their bondage in Egypt, and who had given them the land of Canaan. They must not worship God and the gods of the Canaanites; they must worship God alone, or suffer the consequences.

I will not share my glory with anyone else,

or the praise due me with idols (Isaiah 42:8)

11 For my sake alone I will act,

for how can I allow my name to be defiled?

I will not share my glory with anyone else! (Isaiah 48:11)

So, too, the Israelites of old were not to hold their beliefs privately, but were to proclaim and practice them publicly. God was not content with Gideon’s private offering alone (6:19-22); Gideon must tear down his father’s idols and publicly worship the God of Israel. And so our text challenges us to confront the pluralization and privatization of religion in our own lives. There should be no such thing as a “secret Christian.”

The Great Commission demands that we share our faith with others who are lost apart from trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation:

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Do you notice anything familiar in our Lord’s words here to His disciples and to His church? First of all, we should notice that our Lord is sending us to proclaim the good news of the gospel, in a way that is similar to how He assured Gideon that He had sent him (Judges 6:14). Second, not only did our Lord send us, as He did Gideon, He also assured us of His presence and power when we obey Him and go forth proclaiming the gospel. We have the same assurance that Gideon did, and more, for we have the abiding presence of our Lord through His Spirit.

Finally, our text suggests that our worship should somehow manifest the presence and power of our Lord. I have to admit that I was surprised to realize that Gideon expected God to reveal His presence as he worshipped Him. That is why he asked the Angel of the LORD to wait until he could prepare an offering (6:18). And God did reveal Himself, causing Gideon to became frightened because he had seen God face-to-face (6:22). The similar events in Judges 13:15-23 and 1 Kings 18:16-40 would appear to suggest that God was expected to manifest His presence in some manner when His people worshipped Him.

One might be inclined to set this aside as a phenomena that was restricted to Old Testament times, but I’m not so sure, given what we read in 1 Corinthians 14:

24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uninformed person enters, he will be convicted by all, he will be called to account by all. 25 The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship God, declaring, “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25, emphasis mine).

We should take note of the context here. Paul is arguing that in the church meeting, prophecy is superior to tongues, unless what is spoken in tongues is interpreted. Tongues-speaking was the more spectacular phenomena, while prophecy was less so, at least in the minds of the Corinthians. That is why tongues-speaking was such a problem in the church. If tongues were spoken and not interpreted, Paul argued, unbelievers who observed this would conclude that these Christians were crazy. But if there was prophecy, the secrets of their hearts would be exposed, and they would realize that God was among them. I believe that something similar occurs when God’s written Word is read and proclaimed in the church gathering:

12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Hebrews 4:11-13).

People may get excited when they come to church and loud, expressive music is performed, but I would not be inclined to assume that this alone is a unique manifestation of God’s presence among His people. I would expect that when God’s Word was read and taught in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence would be sensed. God is among His people as they gather in obedience to Him:

19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

I realize full well that this text in Matthew is found in the context of church discipline (18:15-20), but I would nevertheless point out that God promises to be present with His church as they gather in obedience to His commands. I believe that the way in which the New Testament believers met (see 1 Corinthians 14) – the way in which we strive to meet – our Lord’s presence should be felt. When we worship in an open meeting where our participation is not scripted, and where various men speak as the Lord leads, God’s presence becomes evident when there is a uniform message and when the hearts of those gathered are warmed. The climax of this is the celebration of the Lord’s Table, when we remember His death, burial, and resurrection, which is the only means by which we are saved. Let us be more sensitive to God’s presence among us as we worship corporately as a church.


1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 7 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 27, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

2 See Luke 22:31-34.

3 See Judges 2:10—3:5.

4 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

5 See Numbers 22:4-7; 25:6, 14.

6 Joshua 13:21 refers to five Midianite chiefs or leaders. In Judges 7 and 8, four Midianite leaders are named: Oreb and Zeeb (7:25), and Zebah and Zalmunna (8:10ff.).

7 See Judges 3:9, 15; 4:3ff.

8 Note the emphatic “I” throughout the prophet’s rebuke.

9 At times, the word “Amorites” is used as a virtual synonym for “Canaanites.” See, for example, Genesis 15:16.

10 I prefer the more traditional rendering, “the Angel of the LORD.”

11 Each emphasized “you” is singular in the original text and refers to Gideon personally, rather than to Israel corporately.

12 Gideon’s words here don’t seem to square with what we read in Judges 8:18-20, just as Moses’ words in Exodus 4:10 don’t entirely square with Stephen’s statement in Acts 7:22.

13 Translations differ here. The New King James Version reads: "Take your father's young bull, the second bull of seven years old, and tear down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the wooden image that is beside it.” The issue is at least two-fold: (1) How many bulls did Gideon use? and (2) Did Gideon offer his father’s bull as the sacrificial animal or another? The matter does not seem worthy of a great deal of discussion and may not be settled this side of eternity.

14 Actually, this is Joash’s altar. See Judges 6:25.

15 See Luke 22:31-32.

16 See John 14:6; also Acts 4:12.

17 See Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:1-4.