We have established a clear pattern in the book of Judges. Israel suffers embarrassing failure followed by embarrassing loss. They fall into idolatry and God hands them over to the enemy. The people then cry out for God’s help. He sends a judge. The judge brings peace. He or she dies. And then the cycle begins again.
Except for Gideon. Gideon is different. The writer now takes some time to show us that Israel’s failures begin while the judge is still alive. Gideon goes on a power-trip. Let’s read about it, beginning in Judges 8.
4 And Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the 300 men who were with him, exhausted yet pursuing. 5 So he said to the men of Succoth, “Please give loaves of bread to the people who follow me, for they are exhausted, and I am pursuing after Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.” 6 And the officials of Succoth said, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” 7 So Gideon said, “Well then, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will flail your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers.” 8 And from there he went up to Penuel, and spoke to them in the same way, and the men of Penuel answered him as the men of Succoth had answered. 9 And he said to the men of Penuel, “When I come again in peace, I will break down this tower.”
There’s something important I need to tell you up front. We’re not going to hear God speak at all in this chapter or the next. He’s going to intervene in chapter 9, but he’s not going to speak.
God never told Gideon to pursue his enemies. God never instructed him to find provision in Succoth. He never told Gideon to find bread in Penuel. He certainly did not give Gideon permission to make threats against these people. Flail your flesh with thorns? Break down your tower?
Is this even the same man? Do you remember the Gideon of chapter 6? Hiding from his enemies? The least of his family? The least of his clan?
I think it’s safe to say that the victory of chapter 7 has gone to his head! And it is going to get worse. Gideon continues pursuing the enemy army – and he wins! He captures the two kings and wins the battle. Guess what he did next. He went back to Succoth.
16 And he took the elders of the city, and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them taught the men of Succoth a lesson. 17 And he broke down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city.
These were not Canaanites. These were fellow Israelites – his brothers. You didn’t feed my army, so I’m going to torture some of you, kill some of you, and tear down your tower.
It’s easy to see that Gideon has been corrupted. This is not a good leader. This is not finishing well. And God seems to be completely absent from the story. Gideon stands alone in his pride.
It’s also easy for us to judge the judge. But this is often our behavior as well. Success is often more dangerous than failure.
Remember from last week, God had one primary concern for His people. He doesn’t want us trusting in our own hands to save us. God is the hero. Salvation is always by grace. Only God could defeat an army of 120,000 men with 300 men. And only God could defeat sin and death with One man – Jesus Christ.
But here’s the problem. It can be easier for us to see that grace and accept it when we have failed. I know I messed up. I know I need God’s help. But it can be far more difficult to see our need for God’s grace when we succeed. I start to believe I don’t need him anymore. It goes to my head.
This is the point of the parable in Luke 18:
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We have a tendency to feel self-justified when we think we are doing a good job. We start to mistake God’s victories for our own.
And that’s what we see in Gideon. He’s off the reservation. And it only gets worse.
22 Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” 23 Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.”
The people want to make Gideon a king. And Gideon gives the right answer. No. The Lord will rule over you. That’s the right answer. But I’m not sure that’s really what Gideon wants.
It’s like someone saying “stop” and “go” at the same time. “No, I couldn’t possibly”, while at the same time nodding your head.
Why do I think that?
24 And Gideon said to them, “Let me make a request of you: every one of you give me the earrings from his spoil.” (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) 25 And they answered, “We will willingly give them.” And they spread a cloak, and every man threw in it the earrings of his spoil. 26 And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and besides the collars that were around the necks of their camels. 27 And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.
“Everyone give me some of your gold.” What does that sound like? It sounds like something a king would say. And then he builds an ephod – the vestments of a priest. That’s not his job. God didn’t tell him to do that. And that’s not where the ephod belongs. And the writer wants to be sure we understand this was arrogant and wrong. This was not godly worship. This was Gideon starting a cult.
So why did he do it?
Well, it is clear to me that Gideon was trying to accept the role of a king without the title. And he’s using God to get what he wants. He looks and sounds religious, but he’s completely ignoring God’s Word. He’s putting on a show to establish himself as “Israel’s godly ruler.”
Gideon became rich and powerful under the guise of religious devotion. He established a haram and fathered seventy sons. One of those sons he named “Abimelech” which means… wait for it… “My father is king”.
“No! Only God is your king.” Yeah right, Gideon…
Again, we are quick to judge the judge. But this is me. I say one thing and do the opposite all the time. I know the truth – in my head – but that truth doesn’t always sink into my heart. It doesn’t always come out in my actions. As Paul says in Galatians 2, my conduct is not always “in step with the Gospel”.
I am at times, like Gideon, a walking contradiction. I let success go to my head. I forget the grace of God. That’s the personal application.
But there’s a broad, corporate application as well. Notice how anxious the people seem to be to elevate Gideon in position and authority. Gideon plays them like a fiddle, but they don’t seem to mind. No one raises the obvious objections. Aren’t we breaking some commandments here? Shouldn’t we wait for God to tell us what to do?
I think we far too quickly and easily put our trust in humans – especially when they seem to be godly. And that can be dangerous. We see it throughout history. Church and state rarely mix with positive results. God eventually lets the people have their king, but it came with a warning. They would be used and abused – and they were.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” We would be wise to manage our expectations of this world and its leaders.
When Gideon dies, the people again start worshipping false gods and the cycle begins again. But something interesting happens this time. Do you know the saying “you reap what you sow”? Do you remember Gideon’s son, Abimelech?
After Gideon dies, the men of Shechem help Abimelech hire mercenaries. Then he murders his seventy brothers in order to rule alone. The youngest brother, Jotham, escapes and prophesies that the people are making a bad decision by following Abimelech.
And he was right.
22 Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. 23 And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, 24 that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.
The chapter continues with stories of violence and conflict between Abimelech and Shechem, ending with this tragedy.
45 And Abimelech fought against the city all that day. He captured the city and killed the people who were in it, and he razed the city and sowed it with salt.
46 When all the leaders of the Tower of Shechem heard of it, they entered the stronghold of the house of El-berith. 47 Abimelech was told that all the leaders of the Tower of Shechem were gathered together. 48 And Abimelech went up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the people who were with him. And Abimelech took an axe in his hand and cut down a bundle of brushwood and took it up and laid it on his shoulder. And he said to the men who were with him, “What you have seen me do, hurry and do as I have done.” 49 So every one of the people cut down his bundle and following Abimelech put it against the stronghold, and they set the stronghold on fire over them, so that all the people of the Tower of Shechem also died, about 1,000 men and women.
This is perhaps the most tragic story in Judges because Israel became its own worst enemy. This isn’t some outside force invading the land. This is a wicked Israelite leader. This is who they wanted. And this is who God used to judge them. Not an outsider, but one of their own. So brutal. So vindictive. He doesn’t just destroy the city, he ruins the soil and then burns the people alive. Tragic.
Let’s read the ending.
50 Then Abimelech went to Thebez and encamped against Thebez and captured it. 51 But there was a strong tower within the city, and all the men and women and all the leaders of the city fled to it and shut themselves in, and they went up to the roof of the tower. 52 And Abimelech came to the tower and fought against it and drew near to the door of the tower to burn it with fire. 53 And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. 54 Then he called quickly to the young man his armor-bearer and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him.’” And his young man thrust him through, and he died. 55 And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everyone departed to his home. 56 Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. 57 And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.
This chapter is nothing but judgment and horror. God’s only involvement was to send an evil spirit to cause conflict. The wrath of God is being revealed against sin. Grace is coming again in chapter 10, but the story demands we pause and mourn.
God often lets evil destroy evil. As Ralph Davis writes, “There is no fellowship in evil. It does not care for its own.” The kingdom of this world will use and abuse you. Satan wants us to suffer. But the lesson of Abimelech is this – sometimes the most dangerous enemy is already inside the gates. Jeremiah 17:
9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? 10 “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
If that’s the end of the story, we’re in trouble. But it’s not the end. God can use this story to teach us how pride comes before a fall. He can use it to show us how sick we are and how much we need grace. He can humble us, reveal our need for a Savior, and lead us to repentance and faith.
As we picture Gideon teaching the men of Succoth a lesson, flailing their flesh with thorns and briers, we should be reminded of Jesus enduring the Roman scourge – tearing at his flesh as he bore the curse for our sin – the fruit of our deeds, not his. Jesus did not come here on a power-trip, but humbled Himself to the point of death for the sake of a desperately sick people.