The eleventh chapter of Hebrews gives a list of faithful people in God’s service down through the years. One of them is a man named Gideon. The writer of Hebrews simply says, “Time would fail me to tell of Gideon” (Hebrews 11:32).
God has chosen people to serve Him in different ways. He has enlisted people from a variety of backgrounds. God called Moses at a burning bush in the desert. He called Samuel as a little child lying on his bed. He called David on a battlefield, Elijah in the courts of Ahab, Isaiah while confessing his sins in the temple, and Peter from a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Gideon was called in the midst of asking a question. He was threshing out grain on the mountainside at Ophrah. The Midianites had driven the Israelites out of the fertile valleys into the mountains, and for seven long years, the land groaned under the invasions of the Midianites.
As Gideon was doing his work, the angel of the Lord stood before him and said, “The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour” (Judges 6:12). But Gideon answered the angel with a question: “If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? And where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of? . . . now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.”
Gideon was one of the judges in Israel. The book of Judges (in the Old Testament) recounts about 300 years of Israel’s history under 13 men whom God raised up to defend the people of Israel from their enemies, and to restore some measure of order.
The book of Judges describes continuous cycles of sin—followed by servitude, sorrow, and salvation. After 40 years of wandering in the Wilderness—God (through Joshua) led Israel into the Promised Land, and the 12 tribes of Israel settled into their designated areas. The book of Judges continues the story of the conquest of the Promised Land which began in the book of Joshua.
The young nation of Israel, having just recently settled into the land, had no central government. Twice the book of Judges says “there was no king in Israel, (and) every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (17:6 and 21:25). The people time after time forsook the Lord, and they became easy prey for enemy nations. The first chapter of Judges describes some of the wicked Canaanite nations which troubled Israel. Chaos existed on every side.
There were two basic problems during Israel’s early years in the land of Canaan:
1) While Joshua was living, the people served the Lord (Joshua 24:31), but after Joshua’s death, it seems there was no one with strong leadership qualities and deep spiritual commitment to take his place. And so, as new generations grew up, the people “knew not the Lord,” nor did they obey His commandments (Judges 2:10). And one of the great laws of the universe is that God will punish unbelief and disobedience.
2) The other problem was that Israel failed to complete her task of driving out all the inhabitants of Canaan. The people of Canaan were fearfully wicked—steeped in idolatry and immorality and cruelty. They were living so deeply in sin that there was little hope for redeeming them, and so God said to Israel, “You drive them out. You go in and possess the land” (see Exodus 23:24b,31b and Numbers 33:52a,55). But Psalm 106:34-36 says, “They did not destroy the nations . . . but were mingled among the heathen, and learned their works, and they served their idols which were a snare unto them.” Numbers 33:55 says that those pockets of the enemy which remained would become barbs in their eyes to torment them.
Because Israel failed to utterly drive out all the Canaanite inhabitants, their incomplete victory left small bands of the enemy scattered throughout the land—and these heathen Canaanite tribes would from time to time invade Israel, take their crops, and sometimes even levy taxes upon the Israelite people. The sharp lines of distinction between Israel and the pagan nations around them began to be compromised. The beliefs of the heathen were blended with the religion of the Hebrews, and this brought on the anger of the Lord. Judges 2:12 says, “And they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the LORD to anger.”
The lesson in all this is that we can never enjoy God’s promised rest for very long—if we tolerate only partially crushed sins! That little corner in the heart (which we let for the enemy) will later become a thorn to vex us!
One of the beauties of God’s love for the human family is that His anger (described in Judges 2:12) is matched by His mercy. When there are repentance and a commitment to turn away from evil, God brings deliverance.
In the history of Israel, just after entering the Land of Canaan—the Bible says, “Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them” (Judges 2:16). The word “judge” was used partly as a standard word for a political leader, but it was also used to indicate a military hero who rescued Israel from tribal enemies (who were usually much more powerful in number than Israel was).
Some of the judges are merely named and not much more is said about their activity. Others (such as Gideon and Samson) are described in great detail. Our lesson in this Bible Helps booklet centers on the activity of Gideon.
After the deliverance God gave to Israel through Deborah and Barak, Israel was given rest from her enemies for 40 years (Judges 5:31). Then a sad cycle of sin and apostasy set in once again. This time the enemy nation was the Midianites. The Midianites were nomads from the deserts east and south of Israel. Midian soldiers plagued Israel by making guerrilla raids on the land—plundering and destroying the crops and the animals. This went on for seven years (Judges 6:1). In desperation, the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help (Judges 6:6). Once again God came to the rescue and helped His people.
1. Finding a Leader (Judges 6:11-14)
“And there came an angel of the Lord, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained unto Joash the Abiezrite; and his son Gideon threshed wheat (Hebrew “in”) the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11).
Gideon’s father was Joash. He was from the tribe of Manasseh. Joash and Gideon somehow were able to grow and harvest a little wheat, even though bands of Midianite soldiers were plundering and destroying most of the crops. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he was secretly trying to thresh some wheat in a winepress in order to provide some food (Judges 6:11).
The “winepress” was a pit cut into the rock, and was used for crushing the juice out of grapes. Gideon was trying to thresh wheat down in the winepress in order to hide what he was doing from the enemy Midianites. The usual place for threshing grain was an open and elevated place, where the wind would blow away the chaff when the wheat was thrown into the air. As Gideon worked to try and thresh the wheat, an angel of the Lord came and sat under an oak tree nearby.
“And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him, and said unto him, The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour. And Gideon said unto him . . . If the LORD be with us, why then is all this befallen us? And where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? But now the LORD hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites” (Judges 6:12-13).
Even though Gideon was called “a man of valor,” he certainly did not feel very brave. He had heard about God’s miracles in the past, and then said, “But the Lord has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.” Gideon was right in saying that the Lord brought the people of Israel up from the land of Egypt (v.13a), but he was wrong in saying “The Lord has forsaken us” (v.13b). Gideon was not paying attention to the words of verse 12, when the angel said, “The Lord is with thee.”
“And the Lord looked upon (Gideon), and said, Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have not I sent thee?” (Judges 6:14). The “angel of the Lord” was one of the early manifestations of God himself. It was not merely an angel who spoke, but it was “the Lord” who “looked upon him and said, Go . . . .”
Gideon must have wondered how he could save Israel from the enemy Midianites. He was from a poor family, and was the least in his family. But the Lord had a quick answer for him. God said, “Surely I will be with thee.” Notice the words found in Judges 6:15-16: “And he said unto him, Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? Behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house. And the LORD said unto him, Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man.”
Who among us—when called to serve the Lord in some capacity—has not, like Gideon, felt unworthy and unqualified. When Charles Spurgeon (at age 19) was called to pastor Park Street Church in London, he was convinced a mistake had been made, and that the invitation was intended for someone else. But considering that his strength had to come from the Lord, he accepted the call, and eventually became one of the noted preachers of all times.
Gideon recognized that this was a personal call to serve God in a special way. Gideon’s first assignment was to destroy his father’s altar erected to the pagan god Baal, which had been set up in the family’s back yard. Gideon destroyed the altar, and the people of the community were embittered by that act. Their anger was so great that they were ready to kill Gideon for destroying the altar (Judges 6:25-32). These verses tell us something about Gideon’s courage.
Things began to move swiftly after that event. The Midianites assembled a large army in the Valley of Jezreel (6:33), and as the opposition of the Midianites grew more intense, Gideon sent out an appeal for volunteers from several tribes in Israel to help drive out the Midianites. And 32,000 men from several Israeli tribes assembled in response to Gideon’s call.
2. Reducing an Army (Judges 7:1-7)
Gideon may have thought that the number of men who gathered was much too small to fight the multitude of Midianites who had filled a major portion of the Valley of Jezreel. Judges 8:10 indicates that there were 135,000 enemy soldiers who had gathered in the Valley not very far away.
Gideon got up early in the morning, and Judges 7:2 says, “And the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.” Gideon had 32,000 men gathered on the hill overlooking the Valley below. And even though there were more than four times that many enemy soldiers camped in the Valley—God directed Gideon to thin out his ranks.
God first told Gideon to dismiss all who were fearful. More than two-thirds of the men went home. Only 10,000 remained (7:3). Gideon’s band was now out-numbered 13 to 1.
Then God told Gideon to dismiss all who were unwatchful. The army was still too big to serve the Lord’s purpose. A small stream flowed by the camp. The men were to go down there for a drink, and those who lapped the water with their hands (never taking their eyes off the horizon)—were retained in Gideon’s army. Those who got down on their knees to drink, forgetting to keep watch for the enemy, were dismissed. This time, 11,700 more soldiers went home. Now only 300 Israelite soldiers remained (7:4-8). Gideon’s band of soldiers was now out-numbered 450 to 1.
The ones who were left were the careful. God required only a few, but the few that He had were to be loyal and unafraid. Gideon’s army numbered 300 men. The Midianites numbered 135,000. God frequently cuts down on our resources in order that we might depend entirely on Him. Sometimes the Lord sends sickness, and financial reverses, and difficulties of one kind or another—to train us to rely solely on His power. Hudson Taylor, a pioneer missionary in China, firmly believed that God knew his needs and that He would meet them. On one occasion Taylor had only 87 cents left. He wrote to a friend, saying, “We have this—and all the promises of God.”
When God finished preparing Gideon and his army for battle (now limited to 300 men), Gideon had no other choice but to trust God. And as we shall see, the astonishing victory that Gideon achieved over the enemy demonstrates that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. God delights to reveal His power when we human beings acknowledge our weakness.
We cannot be too small for God to use, but we can be too big. If we want the credit for what God is doing, God will not use us. God says, “I am the Lord; that is my name; and my glory will I not give to another” (Isaiah 42:8).
3. Defeating an Enemy (Judges 7:19-21)
Gideon was left virtually without an army. The odds of a win for the Israelites seemed so humanly impossible, that the only hope lay in God. All Gideon and his army of 300 men had was God’s promise, “By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand” (Judges 7:7). (In “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian was caught by Giant Despair and flung into a dungeon under Doubting Castle, when suddenly he remembered a key named “promises” in his pocket. Christian pulled out the key, and discovered that it opened every door—and soon he found his way out of Doubting Castle.)
Gideon had 300 men facing an army of 135,000. But God and Gideon had a secret plan. Gideon divided his army into three companies which surrounded the Midianites on three sides, leaving open only one way for escape. Then he gave each man a trumpet, a pitcher, and a torch. At the appointed time—about 10 o’clock at night:
- 300 trumpets blasted the air;
- 300 hands raised their earthen jars and smashed them to bits;
- 300 burning torches pierced the darkness;
- and 300 soldiers cried out, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon” (Judges 7:19-21).
When Midian’s army heard the 300 pitchers smashing, and the 300 trumpets blaring, and saw the 300 torches waving wildly in the darkness—they “ran, and cried, and fled” (7:21b). The Midianites were thrown into panic. The whole army broke up in wild disorder. In the confusion, some committed suicide, and others killed their own comrades. The remaining soldiers fled. The enemies of Israel were completely routed, and Israel’s homeland once again was secure, and the nation enjoyed 40 years of peace (Judges 8:28).
There are some practical applications which can be gleaned from this lesson:
1) God calls leaders from unlikely settings. Gideon was a poor farmer’s son who worked with his hands (Judges 6:11,15). His father was an idol worshiper (Judges 6:25). Still, even without a formal education, Gideon was an effective leader in God’s service. Effective service for God does not depend on our social status or our family background, but on God’s presence with us (Judges 6:15-16).
2) God prefers a few dedicated and disciplined disciples to multitudes of uncommitted workers. God can win victories with only a minority of dedicated people (Judges 7:2,4,7). God does not need our help to accomplish His plans, but He usually chooses to work through a minority of faithful obedient servants.
3) God still uses ordinary things to accomplish His purposes today. God saw to it that Gideon defeated an enemy with empty jars, torches, and trumpets. What are some common attributes that we can use in God’s service?
For some, it is listening ears. We can sit quietly and listen carefully while a person in distress unloads his burden.
For others, it is our hands. We can accomplish a valuable service by typing, cooking, sewing, cleaning, or doing mechanical work.
For still others, it is our feet. Visiting the sick and shut-ins, doing shopping for disabled persons, running errands, etc. are ways in which we can be used in God’s service by serving others.
God uses common ordinary small things, and ordinary down-to-earth people, to accomplish His purposes.
People sometimes ask about Gideon’s putting out a fleece and asking for a sign to reassure him of God’s leading. Did Gideon sin in asking for a sign? Putting out a fleece is a poor decision-making method. Those who do that are asking God to fit their expectations. The results of such experiments are often inconclusive. Don’t let a fleece become a substitute for God’s wisdom that comes through Bible study and prayer.
We must remember that after the resurrection of Jesus, Thomas had doubts in his mind, and insisted on a sign (that he see the nail prints and touch the scars of the crucified Lord)—or he would not believe. Jesus responded, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29). For those readers who have never received Jesus as a personal Savior, why not accept what the Bible says about Him and confess Him as your Savior?