From Triumph to Tragedy

Series: Judges: God's Faithfulness to Flawed People

May 19, 2019 | Dr. Jonathan Patterson
Passage: Judges 7:1-25

When Leah was pregnant with our fourth child, and we’d learned he was going to be a boy, we immediately started thinking about names. We wanted to make sure his name was significant as each of our other children had some special significance attached to their name. So, we started talking about each of our kids’ names and what they meant.

Now Jonathan was always going to be Jonathan. I’d told Leah before we ever got married that I wanted my firstborn son to be Jr. because our middle name “Merrill” is a family name. Jonathan is a Hebrew name meaning “The Lord gives” and we also thought that very apropos since we’d had a difficult time getting pregnant to begin with. We decided on Samuel for our second son. Like Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother, we believed that God had heard our prayers for a family. When we’d found out that number 3 would be a girl, Leah knew that she wanted her middle name to be Elizabeth as that is Leah’s mother’s middle name. I thought it would be cool if she shared initials with my dad, whose initials are R.E.P. We started talking about R names, and we both liked the name “Reagan,” but we’d never really looked at what the name meant. So, as we’re sitting here trying to figure out what to name our fourth child and third son (I honestly don’t know how larger families come up with so many names), I started looking to see what “Reagan” meant . . . And I found it. It means “little ruler.” Which, if you know my daughter at all, fits pretty well.

I told Leah, “we have GOT to make sure we get it right with this one!” I’m sorry, but “Jacob” was out; we couldn’t spend the next 18 years walking around [walk as if dragging a child]. So, we decided on Gideon. Because I love the story of Gideon. It’s not at all about how great a man Gideon was, but it’s all about how God used Gideon for His purposes. And that’s certainly what we hope for each of our children—that they will allow God to use them for His purpose and to His glory. (As it turns out, the name Gideon comes from a Hebrew word that means “to scatter,” which may explain why his room always looks the way it does.)

But you see, names are significant. Maybe they’re not nearly as significant these days as they once were; it seems now that some names are significant simply for their shock value. Like, “who in the world names their child Apple?” When I was a freshman in college, I did reasonably well in school and was inducted into a couple of freshman honor societies. At one of these ceremonies, there was another student being inducted who’s first, and middle names were “Cash Collateral” (my mom can verify!). Talk about shock value! And yet, while we all initially chuckled under our breath at such a name, a name like that doesn’t completely surprise us in our culture. We glorify the almighty dollar so much that we’re only momentarily surprised to hear a name like “Cash Collateral.”

So when Judges 7 opens, we’re told that “Jerubba’al” rose early in the morning. Most of your translations probably contain something to the effect of “that is, Gideon,” perhaps in parentheses as the Hebrew text itself includes this almost like a parenthetical reference. Gideon had become known as “Jerubba’al,” a name that means “let Ba’al contend.” We can understand this a reference to Gideon’s father, Joash, who stated in v. 31 of the previous chapter, “if Ba’al is a god, let him contend for himself.” Many commentators believe that the name indicates that Gideon’s father, himself, was still a Ba’al worshipper and may likely have joined the men of the town in calling his son “Jerubba’al.” The name is essentially a curse; Gideon’s own people, his own father, calling for this false and foreign god to exact divine justice. These are members of God’s chosen people calling on Ba’al to judge another member of God’s chosen people.

We can be very tempted to breeze past the issue of Gideon being called Jerubba’al here because we want to get to the heart of the story—and believe me, it’s a good one in Judges 7—but I think the name Jerubba’al tells us all we need to know about the people of Israel at this time. That one of their own could/would be called by the name of a false and foreign deity—that the Ba’als were even recognized as deities in the first place—paints a clear picture of how far the people of God had strayed at this time.

A Test of Faith

Despite the continuous cycle of rebellion and the people doing evil in the eyes of the Lord, the Lord has raised up Gideon to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Midianites. But Gideon isn’t exactly a mighty, fearless warrior at this point. In fact, he’s quite the opposite, and it’s one of the reasons that I find Gideon so relatable. When we first meet Gideon, he’s hiding out in a winepress, cowering from the Midianites. When God calls on Gideon to be Israel’s deliverer, Gideon puts God to the test not once, but twice. Gideon was visited by the angel of the Lord, put God to the test twice, and still, he’s not convinced. Maybe you, like me, can completely relate to Gideon. Maybe you, too, are one of those people God has to spiritual smack in the face to convince you. We may not want it to be that way—sure, I’d love to tell you that I quickly and eagerly follow wherever I feel God leading—but the reality is I’m much more of a fleece kinda guy than I’d like to admit.

But, even though God has called Gideon out to lead the army of Israel, God also wants to make sure that it is God himself who receives the credit and glory for the victory, not Gideon or the people of Israel. So now God puts Gideon to the test. It’s a pretty remarkable turn—Gideon had previously tested God, now God tests Gideon. We’re not immediately told how many soldiers Gideon has with him at this point, but we know that after he’s told to let all the “fearful and trembling” ones leave, some 22,000 went home, and only 10,000 remained.

Deuteronomy chapter 20 details how God’s chosen people were to approach war with their enemies and v. 8 specifically addresses the issue of those who are “fearful and fainthearted” and states that they should be sent home so as not to hurt the morale or confidence of the rest of the soldiers. So this first mass exodus of troops certainly seems to be in accordance with Torah and the instructions God had given to Israel previously. Still, it must have been quite distressing for Gideon to see over 2/3 of his army leaving. But 10,000 soldiers is no small army and Gideon still would have been in a relatively good position to conquer the Midianites with an army of 10,000 (and the elevated ground from which to attack).

For the Lord, however, 10,000 troops were still far too many. With a large fighting force, God knew the temptation would be to credit Gideon or the army of Israelites for the victory, and He wanted to make it abundantly clear to Gideon and the Israelites that glory for this victory resides with God alone.

So, he tells Gideon in v. 4 that the people are still too many and he calls for an even greater reduction of forces, eventually winnowing the number of Israelite soldiers to 300. 300! We find out in v. 12 that the opposing forces of the Midianites, Amalekites, et al. was “like locusts in abundance and their camels were without number” like the sand on the seashore.

Can you even imagine Gideon’s mindset at this time? He must have been at least a little concerned standing there with 32,000 troops surveying the Midianite army, and now he’s left with less than 1% of his original fighting force. These aren’t just overwhelming odds; these are “Pelicans winning the NBA title without AD and before securing the 1st pick in the draft” odds. Astronomical! More so, this isn’t 300 trained Spartan hoplites in defensive positions at Thermopylae; this is a collection of 300 relatively inexperienced Israelites who were about to be sent on the offensive!

And then there’s Gideon. Immediately after his troops have been whittled down to the 300 that God will use to attack the Midianites, Gideon is told to go down to outskirts of the enemy camp and observe. Just go and listen, God tells him, and after doing so you’ll be encouraged, your resolve will be strengthened. “But…if you are afraid...”

After everything that Gideon has witnessed from the Lord, after putting God to the test twice and God proving himself (as if He needed to do so!), Gideon is still afraid. Gideon still doesn’t fully trust that God will do what He’s said He would do. Now, this passage doesn’t outright tell us that Gideon was afraid but in v. 10, God tells Gideon that if he is afraid to go down to the enemy camp by himself (in other words, “If you still don’t fully trust me”) to take his servant Purah down to the camp with him. Then v. 11 says that Gideon went down to the enemy camp with his servant Purah. The implication of Gideon’s fear—his lack of faith in YHWH God—is quite obvious.

Believing the Hype

When Gideon and Purah venture to the outskirts of the enemy camp, they hear the dream of one of the Midianite soldiers.

The implication of this dream is that God would give the Midianites into the hand of Gideon and Gideon and Purah immediately fall on their faces and worship God—something we won’t see Gideon do again. He returns to the Israelites camp and tells his “army” that the Lord has given the Midianites into their hands. In that instance, it’s almost as though Gideon’s pride has begun to swell, and he begins to see himself as commander of this fighting force rather than God. This will be Gideon’s victory! Indeed, it wasn’t the sword of Israel’s God in the interpretation of the Midianite dream; it was the sword of Gideon.

Verse 14 is not the only reference we find to a sword in this story, which is truly interesting when we read about how the Israelites were equipped for this battle. Look at v. 16: “he put trumpets into the hands of all of them and empty jars, with torches inside the jar.” Where are the swords? Where are the weapons with which the Israelites were to conquer the Midianites? How could they possibly succeed with nothing but torches and trumpets?!?!

And that’s the very point that God was trying to drive home; not just for Gideon, or the Israelites, but really for the entire world. The measure of his power and might is so great that his people need not even pick up weapons to overcome their enemies. And at times it seems like Gideon gets this, while at other times I see the same arrogance and pride in Gideon that I often see in myself.

In his commentary, Victor Matthews stated that the subsequent battle we see here in Judges 7 is almost an afterthought to the narrative, which kinda struck me. That’s what we remember most about this story, right? The way God used 300 Israelites with trumpets and torches to confuse and decimate this massive army. And yet, if we turn our attention to the main human character of this story—to Gideon—we see someone who struggles to trust God and remain faithful to him. Sound familiar?

As he prepares these 300 Israelites for battle, Gideon emphasizes his own role while diminishing the role of the Lord. Look with me again at vv 17-18.

“And he said to them, ‘Look at me and do likewise. When I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then blow the trumpets also on every side of the camp and shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon.”’”

In these two verses, we have six first-person pronouns: I and me. Six times Gideon referred to himself and his actions; his role in leading this Israelite “army.” The presence of YHWH God is almost an afterthought here. The battle is no longer for the Lord himself but for Gideon as well. And, throughout the rest of the story of Gideon, Israel’s God is pushed to the background of the story of Gideon. Rather than this being the Lord’s victory, it will be Gideon’s. With the command for the Israelites to shout “For the Lord and for Gideon,” Gideon has placed himself on equal footing with God and claims victory for himself.

As I read through this story over and over again in preparation for this morning, this part kept sticking out to me. “For the Lord and for Gideon.” I’ve heard this story numerous times throughout my life, and I never really paid much attention to what was going on here. It never really occurred to me that Gideon was putting himself on equal footing with God; that he was claiming victory alongside of YHWH. And it hit me, because I am Gideon.

And I think at some point in our lives, we’re all Gideon. We have doubts and struggle with remaining faithful to God. Even when He quiets our doubts, guides our lives, and offers us whatever victory we may be searching for, we tend to minimize God’s role in our lives. We tend to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for our accomplishments without any regard how God may have helped or guided us along the way.

In December 2016, I graduated with my Ph.D. from the seminary after a lot of years of hard work and sacrifice. But it wasn’t just my sacrifice that made that possible. It was Leah’s sacrifice—taking care of our children by herself countless nights so I could be in the library or the office researching and writing. It was my children’s sacrifice—giving up opportunities to spend time with Daddy so he could go work on his “paper” (as my children called my dissertation). It was the sacrifice of my parents—willing to help us out financially when times got tight. Don’t get me wrong; I worked my tail off to complete that dissertation and earn that degree. I spent many nights in the office until 1, 2, 3:00 in the morning working on completing that dissertation. But if I stood up here this morning, and I’m sure Taylor would echo this sentiment and told you that I earned my degree solely because of the force of my will, my sheer determination, and my abilities, that would be a lie.

There is no way on earth that I could’ve earned that degree without the help and sacrifice of so many around me. And I believe with all my heart that God used every one of those sacrifices, or words of encouragement, or professors taking time to guide me along the way; every one of those to get me to that point of graduation. And there was no way on earth that a group of 300 Israelites armed with trumpets, torches, and clay pots could have overcome the massive army camped below them in the Jezreel Valley! Simply could not happen, except for some divine intervention.

Divine intervention is exactly what the Israelites got; it’s exactly what Gideon got. And not just some small intervention. Verse 22 tells us that when the 300 blew their trumpets, “the Lord set the sword of each man against his comrade and against all the army.” The writer of Judges is pretty explicit about who should be getting credit for this victory. It wasn’t Gideon that confused the Midianites; it wasn’t even the 300 blowing their trumpets. It was YHWH himself. When the time comes for credit to be given, Gideon wants to make sure he gets his share.

How often do we try to share credit with God? Or try to credit ourselves for events/ circumstances in our lives for which only God should receive credit? How often do we assume we are on equal footing with God? “Sure, I suppose God was present in that difficult time in my life, but I probably would’ve gotten through it on my own. Yeah, I know God helped pave the way for me to complete a Ph.D. but I probably would’ve gotten there anyway, so I’ll just go ahead and give myself credit for that one.”

Pride Goes Before Destruction

Prov 16:18 – Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.

As we finish up the story of Judges chapter 7, we see Gideon descending even further into unfaithfulness, trusting God even less and less, and acting in outright disobedience to what God had commanded.

In v. 23, we’re told that the men of Naphtali, Asher, and Manasseh were called out to join the fight. This is the rest of the 10,000; the 9700 troops that had been sent back to their tents. Then in v. 24, Gideon sends out messengers to rally more troops to continue the pursuit.

Dan Block offered up this assessment: “But having achieved the divinely intended goal with the 300 core troops, Gideon appeared to forget the point of Yahweh’s reduction of the troops. Instead of operating by faith and seeking guidance from God, he relied on human strength…”

When we convince ourselves of the lie that we don’t need God, that we can achieve victory on our own, it can lead us down the road toward outright disobedience. Gideon had so convinced himself of his own abilities, his own greatness even, that he no longer felt he needed to follow God. God had whittled the Israelite army down to 300 men for the express purpose of demonstrating His power and greatness, among the Israelites and the Midianites, but Gideon felt so compelled to glorify himself that he was willing to disobey the commands of YHWH, the God he once fought so passionately to defend.

I don’t believe Gideon set out to disobey God. I believe that Gideon genuinely desired to serve God at the beginning of this story. Yes, as Dr. Brooks said a few weeks ago when he was here and preached on Judges 6, Gideon’s testing of the Lord was sinful, and it shows us the cracks in Gideon’s faith foundation, but I think he’s convinced at the beginning of chapter 7 and ready to fight for YHWH. Remember, this is a man who earned the name “Jerubba’al” because he was prepared to fight on behalf of YHWH. But from the moment Gideon starts to believe that he could, would, and should share credit for the victory that was to come—and I think v. 14 is that very point; the Hebrew text even has a major break at the end of that verse—from that moment on Gideon started seeing himself as not only equally responsible, but equally capable.

Gideon no longer needed YHWH to fight this battle. The Israelites had their enemies on the run, they were calling out the 9,700 troops that had been sent back to their tents, calling up all of the surrounding tribes to send men to fight, and this was going to be Gideon’s crowning achievement. And in the eyes of men, it was. Chapter 8 concludes the story of Gideon’s chasing down the armies of Midian, and it’s pretty clear that God isn’t really in the picture here. And in chapter 8, v. 22 the men of Israel approach Gideon to rule over them—to establish a dynastic kingship over the whole nation, like the other nations around them—because “YOU have saved us from the hand of Midian.” You, Gideon; you are our Deliverer!

What we want to see here, what we’re hoping from Gideon, is that he’s going to correct this faulty assumption. He’s going to stand up and say, “NO, not I; not I, but the Lord has delivered you.” But that’s not what we get. Instead, we get the equivalent of the modern-day “God’s in control.” “No, I’m not going to be your king; YHWH will rule over you.”

Have you ever heard people say things like “God’s in control” or “God’s got this”? You’ve seen those posts on social media, and for some people, you know they legitimately believe that God is in control. But then there are those others to whom phrases like that are just talk; church-speak, if you will, when the reality is that they can’t stand the thought of not being in control in their own lives. “Yeah, sure, God’s out there in control of the cosmos and all that stuff, but my life is my own, and I’m in control.” And their actions show that they don’t believe God has much bearing on their day-to-day lives.

I think that’s where Gideon is by the end of chasing down the Midianite armies. He’s allowed himself to believe that he achieved victory for Israel; that he deserves the credit. He’s not even willing to correct the men of Israel when they call him their savior… because he believes it! Yes, God has his place, and he’s going to rule over Israel on the macro level, but in terms of my little bubble of existence… this is all me!

I know that my passage is Judges 7, so you’ll have to forgive me for jumping into chapter 8, but since no one else is preaching on it, I’m not worried about stepping on anyone’s toes. But I don’t think we can appreciate the story of Gideon—what should have been an amazing victory for which YHWH received all the credit—without seeing the end of Gideon’s story. And maybe this isn’t the way you expected this sermon to go because we believe that Judges 7 is all about the incredible display of God’s power—and it is, to some extent—but it’s also a story of pride and the disastrous consequences that can have.

As we get to the end of Gideon’s story, we see that he doesn’t want to be king, but he does make one not so small request—all of the earrings from the spoils of war; 1700 shekels worth, or about 43 pounds (about $800,000 worth today). And what does Gideon choose to do with all of that gold? He makes an idol! The text says he made an ephod, which is generally meant to refer to a priestly garment, but here it likely means a fashioned idol as well as the garments for the idol. And chapter 8, v. 27 tells us that “all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.”

When Gideon started out, he was zealous for the Lord. He tore down the shrine to Ba’al, on his father’s property no less, and replaced it with an altar for YHWH. By the time his story concludes, he’s turning that same shrine into a pagan one with an idol that he created himself.

I think Gideon started with the best of intentions, just like all of us when we accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior. Gideon recognized the necessity of divine intervention in his life as well as in the life of all Israel; they were neither strong enough nor unified enough to fend off the invading Midianite army. And when we came to faith in Christ, it was because of our recognition that we were powerless to combat sin and its consequences by ourselves; we needed the ultimate divine intervention through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But somewhere along the way, we lost that realization. Or we started to forget about our dependence on God. We started to realize that we weren’t powerless after all, and maybe we didn’t need to rely on God as much as we thought. Sure, God is in control of the big picture stuff—creation, salvation—but we can handle our own little sphere of existence. And when we start to forget about our reliance on God, our need for God, it gets easier and easier to start stepping outside the will of God. If we continue down that path for too long, we can find ourselves in a completely different place than when we started out.

There is a reason that our faith in Christ cannot be reduced to a one-time decision but is rather daily recommitting ourselves to follow Christ; daily reminding ourselves of what compelled us to follow Him in the first place. That we continually remind ourselves of our need for divine intervention in our lives. Not that we have to see ourselves as weak and insignificant, but that we recognize any abilities, talents, opportunities we have are gifts from the Lord. That without him, we really would be weak and insignificant.

Gideon started to believe his own hype. He started to believe that maybe he would bear some responsibility for what happened in the Jezreel Valley that day. And so rather than trusting in God—instead of relying on him and being obedient to his instructions—Gideon decided that he would take charge; that he would lead the Israelites to victory. When Gideon gets to the point where he no longer feels that YHWH is necessary to securing victory, it makes it easier for him to neglect YHWH altogether, until eventually, Gideon descends into idolatry.

When we live our lives as though we don’t need God, as though our commitment to Christ is simply a one-time decision that has little impact on the way we live the rest of our lives, we run the risk of becoming idolaters as well. No, I don’t imagine any of us have built any 40 lbs golden images (if you have, perhaps a sermon on stewardship would be in order). But we set up other idols in our lives: career, money, even our familial relationships can be an idol when they convince us that we no longer need to trust in God. We even set ourselves up as idols. Gideon idolized himself and his own ability to defeat the Midianites. When we believe ourselves capable of handling all of life’s circumstances without the aid of our Creator and Savior, we have assumed the role of lord of our own lives. We set ourselves up as idols, in direct competition with the Lord of all the universe. When we believe our own hype and start to diminish the necessity of relying on God, it won’t be too long before we find ourselves completely outside of his will just like Gideon. And that’s why we must be intentional about daily recommitting ourselves to following after God wholeheartedly. Daily reminding ourselves of the truth that Jesus shared with his disciples in John 15:5 when he said, “if you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

Separated from Christ—pushing Jesus to the background of our lives rather than keeping Him in the forefront—we can do nothing for God. We may achieve wealth, power, even some measure of notoriety on our own, just as Gideon did. But those things will ultimately become a snare to us, as was the case for Gideon. And when we focus only on the here and now and the things that we want for ourselves on this earth, we lose sight of eternity. We lose sight of the impact that we ought to have for the Kingdom of God here on earth… and we can do nothing that is of any consequence to God.

Let us not believe our own hype. May we never believe that everything we have, everything we’ve accomplished, is through our own force of will or determination. May we always focus on God as the giver of every good and perfect gift. And may we never forget that the one thing we could NEVER accomplish on our own—our salvation from sin and death—Jesus accomplished by willingly giving up his life for ours. And let us daily recommit ourselves to that truth; that apart from God, we can do nothing.

Series Information

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