Most people have heard of the famous Battle of Thermopylae, when Leonidas and 300 Spartan soldiers defended the retreat of the Greek army at a narrow pass for an entire day. The Persians eventually killed them all, but it is perhaps the most famous “last stand” in history. It was an amazing feat of military strength against overwhelming odds.
The sermon this morning is about a group of 300 Israelite soldiers who won a battle despite overwhelming odds – and yet it was not an amazing feat of military strength. It was something only God could have done. We’re about to read the story of Gideon. But first, let’s pray. [Pray]
6:1 The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.
The writer goes on to explain that Midian took advantage of Israel by raiding the land – stealing food and livestock every year. When the people finally ask God for help, he does not immediately send a judge. Instead, he sends a prophet. The prophet reminds them that they are in this mess because of idolatry.
Idolatry is the visible expression of a rebellious heart. It is something we are all guilty of doing. We would rather trust someone or something we can see than Someone we can’t see. And Judges wants us to take a closer look at our lives and find that rebellion. Idolatry is a trust issue – not a religion issue. Worship is a trust issue. And Israel keeps failing in the same ways.
Then we meet Gideon.
11 Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”
Some are quick to say that God is mocking Gideon for being a coward. Why would a mighty man of valor be hiding from the enemy?
I don’t think that’s fair. Courage, they say, is not the absence of fear. But courage rests on a belief that there is something more important than fear. In this case, it is the call of God. If God says this man is a mighty warrior, then he is a mighty warrior. That should be good enough. But:
13 And Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” 15 And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”
This is the basic human response to any problem we face. “It’s too big and I’m too small. How can I do what God wants me to do? You don’t understand my circumstances. God doesn’t seem to notice me or care at all. And I’m a nobody, so I don’t blame Him.”
That’s how Gideon responds – with the excuses of a victim. Please, Lord… Why me?
God’s reply is simple and direct.
16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”
I’ll be with you. I’m sending you. Isn’t that enough? It should be, of course.
But Gideon is not convinced. He asks for proof and God patiently provides it! Then God asks Gideon to do something very risky. He tells Gideon to destroy his father’s idols. That’s like telling one of my children to burn down this church. It’s not an easy request. God is obviously testing Gideon.
27 So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had told him. But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night.
Again, it sounds like Gideon is a bit of a coward. But I appreciate what Ralph Davis says about it. God never said he had to do it in the daytime. He just had to do it. Obedience is essential. Heroism is optional. If we are waiting on a perfect representation of obedience, then we are waiting on Jesus. We’re not going to find it in the book of Judges – or anywhere else in the Bible.
A lot of times, we excuse our disobedience by saying “nobody’s perfect.” But God certainly seems to care whether or not we obey Him. And that’s because God cares that we trust him.
Gideon destroyed the altars. God protected him. The Midianites attacked again and Gideon organizes an army. But he still has some trust issues.
36 Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37 behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” 38 And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40 And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.
In Matthew 4, Satan tries to get Jesus to ask God for a sign and Jesus says that we should not put God to the test. How is this different? Why is God patiently going along with this fleece thing?
When we read this story, we see it as Gideon asking for a little sign to confirm a decision. And that would be wrong. We should not put God to the test.
The difference is that Gideon doesn’t really understand who God is yet. He’s literally asking God for help to believe! None of the other gods had the power to do something like this. I think Gideon was amazed by it and God was patient with him as a means of building up his faith.
It reminds me of the father in Mark 9 who asks Jesus to heal his son. The man cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”
That’s how I read the story of the fleece. God is patiently helping Gideon grow in his faith.
Now we come to the most famous part of the story. The army gathers for battle, but God does something very surprising.
2 The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’
Gideon had too many soldiers! And then God reduces the size of the army from 22,000 down to only 300. And he did that in a very unusual way.
5 So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.” 6 And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water.
There are some very clever explanations out there trying to explain why the 300 men were better soldiers or worse soldiers, but the truth is we have no idea why God chose these men. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that he wanted a really small number – so small that the only explanation is going to be this – “God won the battle.”
And that’s what happens.
16 Gideon divided the 300 men into three companies and put trumpets into the hands of all of them and empty jars, with torches inside the jars. 17 And he said to them, “Look at me, and do likewise. When I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. 18 When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then blow the trumpets also on every side of all the camp and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’”
300 men routed an army of thousands with trumpets and an ancient version of Molotov cocktails. Not an army of Spartans, but one Sovereign God…
This story shows us both the difficulty and the necessity of trusting God.
God shares His objective clearly in verse 2. He’s not Ok with us believing that we are saved by our own hand. That doesn’t sound like a big deal to us, but it is a big deal to God.
Pride and unbelief are two sides of the same coin. Failure to trust God is at the same time a foolish trust in oneself. This is what God wants to expose in us.
There’s a little story in Numbers 15 that shows us how seriously God deals with the sin of pride.
32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Doesn’t that seem harsh to us, that God would command people to stone a man to death for picking up sticks on the wrong day? But that’s not his sin. That’s just the product of the man’s sin. The issue is much bigger.
Just before this story, God had finished explaining something called a “sin of the high hand”. A “sin of the high hand” was the deliberate breaking of a commandment. The fourth commandment forbids God’s people from doing work on the sabbath, and God had specifically mentioned building a fire. Why was the man gathering sticks? To build a fire! This was not an accident. It was willful sin – a sin of the high hand. Think of a fist raised to heaven.
When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, it was a sin of the high hand. It was deliberate, willful rebellion. It was an act of pride. “We know better than God.”
A “sin of the high hand” and “my own hand has saved me” come from the same place in the heart.
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. This is why he chose Gideon – the least of his family… the least of his clan… the least of his tribe. Not a mighty warrior – until God said he was.
The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted and whoever exalts himself will be humbled. There are literally hundreds of verses in the Bible about the dangers of pride. And that’s because it is impossible for us to trust in God’s hand to save us if we are already trusting in our own hand.
If God weakens you, it may be to save you. We love to point out the sins in other people’s lives. But the most dangerous sin may be the one we often overlook in our heart – our pride.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ exposes pride like nothing else. God used the weakness and the foolishness of the cross to crucify our sin. That humbles us because we can’t add anything to it. We either accept it in repentance and faith, or we reject it in pride. There’s nothing else to do.
And then we are counted righteous by faith – by trusting God’s provision in Christ. In other words, I’m not righteous because I’m smarter, or stronger, or better. Like Gideon, I’m the least likely recipient of God’s favor. I have nothing to boast about except God.
And yet, just as God called Gideon a “mighty man of valor”, he now calls me “righteous”. Not because I have earned it, but because of Christ. It’s no less true. In fact, it is more true – if that’s possible – because God said so! I’m forgiven. I’m righteous. I’m God’s son.
Christians ought to be the most confident and secure people on the planet while at the same time being the least prideful about it. We ought to be able to accept criticism better than anyone else. Not easily offended, but quick to repent.