Gideon: The Sign of the Times – Judges 6:11-ff
The story of Gideon is familiar to most of us. We have heard in children’s church about brave Gideon and how his army defeated the Midianites, with God’s help. That makes for a nice story, but if we actually read the story as written, we find a different, yet more accurate, account.
Gideon is afraid. He is hiding in a hole, a wine press, and hoping no one sees what he is doing as he hopes to salvage enough wheat to sustain him and his family before the Midianites steal it.
It unfolds when the Angel of the Lord (a theophany of Jesus) suddenly appears to Gideon, who is standing in this hole in the ground. The conversation starts with the Angel of the Lord saying, “The Lord is with you, mighty man of valor.” This is an example of when God demonstrates His sense of humor. Gideon has, at this appearing, what I call a “laundry moment,” when he knows he can’t run and he has no idea how this being came up on him.
As we progress in the story, we see that Gideon does what God ultimately asks of him and God sees Gideon as he will be when He calls Gideon a mighty man of valor, not currently as he is. Go through Hebrews 11 and see how God identifies with those humans in all of their frailties – He doesn’t see them through failure or what they were when He called them; He sees them as what they became – faithful followers who were obedient to God’s call.
In this case, using the power of God’s word, God declares Gideon to be a mighty man of valor based on who or what God sees him becoming, not in his current state of cowardice. As the story further progresses, we continue to see Gideon afraid and, ultimately, his entire band of 300 as a cowardly bunch. By the end of the story, however, God proves faithful and Gideon and his men have learned of God’s faithfulness and power as God strengthens their faith in Him.
This initial appearance certainly takes Gideon by surprise and he responds to the first part of the statement, questioning that if God was really with him, why has all of this chaos happened, declaring that God “abandoned” them. It is the old adage, “why do bad things happen to good people?” Gideon fails to recognize that it is because the Israelites left God (see Judges 6:1-10), not because God left them. God was simply waiting for His people to repent and call on Him (Judges 6:7).
God tells Gideon to “go in the strength you have” and save Israel from the Midianites. God already knew that Gideon, on his own, could not “save” Israel from the Midianites. God did not tell Gideon to go in his own strength, but rather to “go in the strength you have.” At that moment in time, Gideon did not have it. But, again, God sees Gideon in the future, knowing that he will go in God’s strength. Since it is God who calls, it is God who gives the strength and ability to fulfill His call. Gideon could not do it on his own and he willingly and emphatically stated that. But, God being eternal, not bound by current man-made time, already knows and sees Gideon in the future. By obedience, Gideon will become a mighty man of valor and will go in God’s strength that He has given to Gideon, to defeat the Midianites.
Back to the present, Gideon basically says, paraphrased, look, I’m from one of the weakest tribes in all of Israel and “the least in my family,” that Gideon is neither strong and perhaps not the smartest, paraphrased as, dumb as rocks. Gideon says that if God is looking for strength or intelligence, He got the wrong guy. Again, he misses the point that God sees him as he will be – not in his own strength but with the strength given to him by God Himself!
God is looking for the person that will follow His instructions. He doesn’t want Gideon to trust in his own abilities, but in God’s power. God reassures Gideon that He will be with him and will kill all of the Midianites, “leaving none alive.”
Gideon wants a sign that it is really God talking to him. So, he asks Him to wait while he goes to prepare a goat for a meal with homemade bread and broth. I am sure that was not a microwaved meal. I almost believe he was hoping God would be gone when he got back hours later. But, that was not to be the case. Gideon offers God the meal, thinking it will be eaten. After all, it has been hours. But, as Gideon is about to learn through this entire process, God does not do the predictable. He touches the food with the staff that is in His hand (6:21) and fire shoots from the rock and consumes all of it as God disappears.
Wow! Gideon has a learning moment and exclaims, “I have seen the Angel of the Lord face to face!” Gideon’s fear factor has now increased. The Israelites were taught, from the days of Moses, that anyone who “sees” God will die! Gideon fears for his life.
Remember, the Angel of the Lord has already “disappeared” from Gideon’s sight. But the very next statement is from God who reassures Gideon to not be afraid – the theme of the whole story – and tells him that he is not going to die (6:23). A lesson point here is that Gideon can no longer see God, but God has never left him. Gideon is not alone. God speaks to him, reassures him, comforts him in his fear. Immediately, Gideon builds an alter to the Lord for worship, recognizing it truly was God who is worthy of that worship.
This story is full of examples of Gideon being afraid. God instructs Gideon to tear down the idols of the fake gods that his father and the people were worshiping and build an alter to God with the wood from those idols while offering his father’s second (seven year old) bull as a sacrifice. God was very specific as to which bull should be sacrificed. Commentary states that it may have been because Gideon’s father’s first bull was already sacrificed to the false gods or that it was being prepped for such a sacrifice. God did not want a sacrifice that was already “blemished.” I cannot say for certain that was the reason God instructed Gideon specifically to sacrifice this bull, but no doubt it was an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord.
God said that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission (forgiveness) of sin (Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews 9:22). There had to be a blood sacrifice as payment for Israel’s sin. God accepted that sacrifice. We cannot continue to sin against God and expect zero consequences. When we repent from sin and turn back to God, we must be willing to provide a sacrifice. Today, God is not asking for a sacrifice that involves death or open bloodshed. Romans 12:1 states that He wants us, as a living sacrifice to Him – worshipping Him, obeying His call to be the holy (separated out) people that in Romans 12:2 says, is our reasonable service. As God saves us from condemnation and judgment, He expects us to give ourselves back to Him to serve Him.
Gideon obeyed God and tore down the alters to other gods, but he did so in the middle of the night because he was afraid (6:27). He wanted the cover of darkness so people would not know it was him that did this act against the people’s false gods. Apparently, he had reason to fear. Through a little bit of investigation, the people discover it was Gideon who did this and they tell his father to bring him so they can put him to death for such a deed.
When we follow God’s calling, we are often tested with circumstances so that we can truly see that God is with us and to truly strengthen our faith in His calling for greater things to come. This was a test and whether done in daylight or darkness, Gideon had reason to fear. But, God – a statement or principle we see often in Scripture – demonstrated His protection and reaffirmed His earlier statement that Gideon would not die. God had a purpose for Gideon and this was just step one. There were lessons to learn, faith to grow, and a greater work to come. Each step of the way, God provided for Gideon, continuing to build Gideon’s faith in Him. Afterward, Gideon was given a nickname, Jerubaal, meaning that Baal would deal with Gideon for his actions, if Baal was actually a god. This was another step toward the people coming back to the true God of Israel as they were able to see that nothing came of it, reinforcing that Baal was not a real god, at all. I find it interesting that once we get to chapter 7, God-inspired Scripture uses Gideon’s nickname – Jerubaal – as a reminder that Gideon has nothing to fear from his removing idols to Baal.
Before we get to chapter 7, however, we come to one of the most famous and re-told stories of the account of Gideon: the fleece. It begins with the Midianites, Amalekites, and other eastern armies joining forces to come up against Israel in the valley of Jezreel. This location is important as we continue in the story of Gideon’s selection for his “army.” But, we are not there yet.
Judges 6:34 states, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Gideon” and he summoned the tribes together to prepare for battle. This is just the second time that God tells us His spirit came upon a person. In the New Testament, we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit when we are saved. During the Old Testament, we read about the Spirit coming for specific events and leaving again. It was not yet a permanent indwelling of the Spirit as we have today. The first record was with Othniel (Caleb’s younger brother), the first judge (Judges 3) used by God to rescue the Israelites from their oppressors.
With the Spirit upon Gideon, we see Gideon asking God for assurance that he is to be the person to set Israel free from its oppressors, the Midianites and the armies from the east. The Midianites made a pact with other armies to go up against Israel. The Israelites were clearly outnumbered and out-trained as fighting men. So, Gideon calls to arms the men from surrounding Israelite tribes and assembles 32,000 ready to fight.
Gideon asks God for a reassuring sign, that if God is really with him as He promised as Gideon second-guesses God’s call on him, God will clearly show him. Gideon is going to place a wool fleece on the threshing floor, which is at ground level, and ask God to place dew on the fleece but to keep the ground around it dry. God answers and Gideon wrings a bowlful of water out of the fleece while standing on dry ground. Reflect back on what has happened so far. The Angel of the Lord flames out and vaporizes a meal of goat, bread, and broth to assure Gideon he is speaking to God. Gideon then survives the removal of Baal and Asherah’s idols by tearing them down and building an alter to the Lord and sacrificing a bull. Now, the Spirit of the Lord is upon him and he asks for one more sign and God provides that supernatural reassurance.
To keep with the story’s theme – fear – Gideon is still not sure and, at the risk of making God angry, asks for one more sign. This time, he wants God to keep the wool fleece dry while the ground is wet with dew. Chapter 6 ends with God meeting Gideon’s request that same night, stating that only the fleece was dry and all of the ground was covered with dew.
Gideon could not refute what God was telling him to do. Gideon could not refute that it was God that was telling him. Regardless of his fear level, regardless of looking for an escape from the plan, he now had nowhere to go. These signs reassured Gideon while removing all excuses to do what God was calling him to do. Was it irresponsible for Gideon to ask for those signs? Was Gideon showing a lack of faith by asking for those signs? Did God leave him to his fear and his worry that maybe God wasn’t really with him?
God reveals His will in various ways. Scripture is clear that God may use His Word, signs, visions, dreams, other believers, and circumstances as examples of how He may communicate His will or calling with you. He will not give a sign if you are asking for something for which you already have His will or command to do or not to do. For example, and I hope this is an extreme example just to make the point, He will not give you a sign as to whether it is ok for you to sleep with your neighbor’s spouse since He has already made clear that you should not commit adultery.
Beyond that, I cannot fall on my sword as it relates to how God may communicate to and with you regarding what He wants you to do during seasons or special times in your life. Based on Scriptural examples, I will say:
- A sign you may receive from God does not mean it is permanent. In Gideon’s case, it was related just to this one calling and mission. A sign could point you to a permanent vocation but it could also be for a temporary “assignment” for just a short season of time.
- A sign does not have to be something specific that you want to see. In other words, don’t put God in a box and suggest that if He does not provide the specific sign you ask for, that God is somehow avoiding or ignoring that tug of the Spirit on your life to do something special. God wants to reveal to you what He is calling you to do. We (my wife and I) have asked God to provide us a sign that we will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God wants us to do something but without making it specific. We believe that God, through His creativity, can reveal things to us that show us what He wants without us having to ask for a wet or dry wool fleece. God has always been clear and He has always been faithful to give us that direction we were looking for through one or multiple signs.
- Do not limit your “sign” to just the physical, meaning, you should be open to God’s leading through the various ways that He speaks to us – His Word, other believers, circumstances, dreams, visions, and confirmed with the peace of God in your decision. Again, don’t limit God in how He reveals things to you.
- Finally, be careful not to misinterpret a sign or that everything that happens to you is a sign. In my Christian walk, God has always been perfectly clear in what He reveals. It did not require me to second guess or start believing that everything was a sign to where there is confusion. I don’t believe you can misinterpret a sign if you sincerely are looking for God’s confirmation – He will give it to you clearly.
In whatever way you may answer those questions about God giving signs, God did answer Gideon’s specific requests, making it very clear that Gideon was “the guy” chosen by God at this time in history to free Israel from the Midianites. At this point, with 32,000 strong, Gideon is starting to feel pretty good about the outcome. Then, we get to chapter 7. Another test, more fear, and a plan that looks like it is falling apart.
The Midianites and assisting armies had more than 135,000 fighting men. So, even at 32,000, one could perceive that Israel was still significantly outnumbered. But Gideon had God’s promise, God’s signs, and the Spirit of God upon his life. Though outnumbered, he knew he could not fail.
The next test would throw a bit of a curve to Gideon. God said that Gideon had too many fighters; the number had to be reduced so that Israel would not boast that it was the army’s skills or strength that won the battle. God’s fix, as it were, was for Gideon to announce that anyone who was afraid (our theme) could leave. Knowing that 32,000 were going up against 135,000 should have made all of them fear. So, it appears the smart ones who figured they were all going to die packed up and went home – 22,000 of them. Gideon now looks around and sees two thirds of his army has left him. With 10,000 remaining, Gideon now has the ones that don’t know they are supposed to be scared (the stupid ones) or the ones that are too scared to leave. Either way, God immediately tells Gideon that he still has too many and must pare down again.
Remember I told you it was important to remember where the enemy was located – in the Valley of Jezreel. The 10,000 Israelites were on a mountain – the high ground – and able to see the 135,000 massive army encamped in the valley a couple miles away. Keep in mind, everyone on both sides is infantry. The Israelites had the high ground and could see everything. There was no invading army, no one encroaching upon them. As a matter of fact, the Midianites and their pack of friends knew the Israelites were outnumbered. They didn’t need a surprise attack. They were a fighting machine going up against an outnumbered band of nomads. They had nothing to fear, it would seem.
So, God tells Gideon to have his “army” do one more thing. God directed that the men go to a stream and get water. He told Gideon to watch how the men drank. For those who laid down and stuck their faces in the water, Gideon was to separate them from the ones who knelt and cupped water in their hands. Knowing the enemy was a couple miles away and down in the valley, knowing that they had the high ground and know their enemy was nowhere near them, 9,700 of those 10,000 men chose to lay down and lap water like an animal. There was no need for caution. There was no need to fear while getting a drink at the watering hole because there was no enemy close enough to worry about.
The others, the remaining 300, stayed on their guard, always looking for danger. Some people suggest these were the “ready for battle” soldiers, the ones who remained vigilant and ensuring no one surprised them. Some people suggest that these were the ultimate cowards, the scaredy-cats, the ones that were so scared they could not even bring themselves to get a drink without fear for their lives.
Whichever brand you go by, the fact is God wanted Gideon to keep the 300 and send the others home. Gideon now has third and fourth thoughts about this battle. His fear level is now off the charts and he has no idea what to do. Have you ever been at that point? Well, once again, here comes God to the rescue.
The passage reaffirms that the camp of Midian was below the Israelites in the valley. God told Gideon at night to get his 300 men and attack and that God would give Gideon the victory. I can almost see Gideon with this look of unbelief, almost sheer terror on his face and in his eyes. Why do I say that? Look at the next sentence (Judges 7:10). God says, “If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what the enemy is saying.” Did Gideon attack? No! He grabbed Purah and went to check out the camp.
I want to stop here briefly. Gideon, though very afraid, continued to follow God’s direction. It is true that he did not attack, but he did take Purah and go down to the enemy camp. Had they been caught, they would have likely been killed. They were afraid, but they still kept moving. Fear can be healthy, but not at the expense of ignoring or disobeying God’s call. God continued to reassure Gideon that He was with him and that the victory was his for the taking. This time was no different.
Gideon and Purah sneak down to the Midianite camp. Scripture says the Midianites and the others were thick like locusts and their camels could not be counted, there were so many. But just as they arrive on the outside of camp, they hear two men talking in their tent. One was relaying a dream that he had (7:13) and his tent-mate immediately says, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands” (7:14).
Another wow! Gideon and Purah are eavesdropping on these guys and one of them clearly and plainly interprets this other guy’s dream to say that Gideon (how many Gideons might he know), the son of Joash the Israelite – OK, that’s specific enough – is going to win the battle. When Gideon heard that, he instantly bowed his head in worship to God. That was a clear sign. That was what Gideon needed to hear. What did he do? He ran back up the mountain, woke everyone, and prepared the strategy to attack. There was no stopping Gideon now. He knew beyond a shadow of doubt that God had orchestrated everything in his favor. Verse 15 shows Gideon’s excitement, yelling for everyone to get up, let’s go, the Lord has delivered the Midianites into your hands.
It seems odd that he did not proclaim that the enemy was to be delivered into our hands, but rather stating into your hands, the hands of the 300 fearful remaining men. These men will not have to kill anyone or fight hand-to-hand against anyone. They don’t know that yet, but God has already provided the victory.
Gideon splits the 300 into companies of 100 each, all with horns (reminiscent of the Jericho days, perhaps), empty clay jars, and lighted torches inside the jars. They surround the camp, sound the horns, break the clay jars and expose the torches, and shout (again, Jericho remembrances), “For the Lord and for Gideon.” In Judges 7:20, that is exactly what they did. Verse 21 states that all these 300 men had were torches in one hand and their horns to blow in the other. There were no fighting instruments, no killing weapons, no defense!
Fear strikes the enemy and they jump out of their tents, wielding their swords and killing each other. The others ran for their lives. It’s not even the 300 who initially pursue the enemy. What will they do with horns and torches? The call goes out for fighting men, including the mighty warriors of Ephraim, to chase the enemy and who ultimately kill two of the Midianite leaders.
The story continues, now with Gideon who knows the power, strength, and will of God. He has become the mighty man of valor that the Angel of the Lord called him at the beginning of his encounter.
As followers of Christ, we all want to do what God has called us to do. Most often, fear keeps us from standing up; fear keeps us from jumping out of the boat; fear keeps us hostage to what God is calling us to do. Fear is a normal human emotion that God created within us. A healthy fear and reverence for God is good. But when fear grips us, preventing us from following God’s call, we must overcome it.
God has given 365 “fear not” verses in Scripture. I would say it aligns with giving us one for each day of the year but the Jewish calendar does not have 365 days in it. Clearly, that must have been designed by God to give us who are alive today a “fear not” a day. God knows we are fearful beings and He continues to encourage us with the promise that we are not alone. The fact that we cannot see God does not mean He is not there. Remember God responded to Gideon in chapter 6 after God was no longer visible to him.
God has given us His Holy Spirit – now permanently indwelling believers rather than just coming upon us as in the Old Testament – to keep us in His perfect peace, to show us that His love casts out fear (I Corinthians 13), and that He is always with us (Matthew 28:20), even to the very end. The Spirit gives us boldness, protection, and even if God’s will is to take us out of the battle early, He gives us the hope and endurance to remain faithful.
Take the lessons of Gideon and be encouraged that God has already given us the victory; we simply need to claim it. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hesitate to ask God for clarity. Don’t second guess God but, if your humanity surfaces and you do anyway, God is right there. God sees you as He wants you to be, not necessarily as you currently are. He already sees you as justified through Christ. He knows the plans that He has made for you (Jeremiah 29:11); allow Him to work in your life to get you there.