Gideon: Man of Fear, Man of Faith
Last week we examined how "providential circumstance" can be dangerous when we rely on it as part of our decision-making process. This is not to deny the existence of providentially inspired events in our lives. God may well choose to intervene in our daily lives to bring about His will. The key point here is that such divine intervention is at His initiative, not ours! He may choose to act, or He may not.
Which brings us to a well-known Bible personality by the name of Gideon. He lived sometime around 1190 B.C., about 140 years before Saul would be appointed King. During this time, Israel was enduring severe oppression at the hands of Midian, a country roughly 200 miles to the southeast of Jerusalem. The Israelites had suffered for seven years under the persecution of the Midianites, seeking refuge in the mountains, caves and other strongholds (Judges 6:2). One day, while Gideon was secretly threshing his wheat in a winepress so it wouldn't be discovered by the Midianites, an angel of God appeared saying:
"The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." (Judges 6:11b)
To Gideon, hiding out in his winepress, this must have sounded at first as though the angel was making fun of him:
"But sir," Gideon replied, "if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian." (v.13)
Dispensing with the small-talk, God makes His will known to Gideon:
The LORD turned to him and said, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" (v. 14)
Gideon, no doubt thinking to himself, "I hope the Midianites don't hear me talking about this," begins to sound a bit like Moses in his response to God's call:
"But Lord, " Gideon asked, "how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." The LORD answered, "I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together." (vv. 15-16)
At this point, though, Gideon takes a different tact with God. With no more excuses readily available, he proceeds to ask for a sign:
Gideon replied, "If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you." And the LORD said, "I will wait until you return." (vv. 17-18)
God obliges Gideon, and receives his offering. Later, God commands Gideon to tear down his father's Asherah pole and altar to Baal. Gideon does so late one night in fear of the consequences (v. 30). After that, we read that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon (v. 34) and he began to call out the neighboring tribes to arms. But then, we see Gideon's faith begin to waver once again:
Gideon said to God, "If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised--look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said." (vv. 36-37)
God chooses to oblige Gideon. But Gideon is still not convinced:
And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew--a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, "Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew." That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. (vv. 38-40)
Finally, Gideon musters enough courage to assemble his troops for battle. Perhaps at this point he began to gain back his confidence and started to think to himself, "You know, maybe we can beat the Midianites!" What God said next, however, must have sent Gideon's servants in search of large quantities of antacid for their master:
The LORD said to Gideon, "You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.'" (Judges 7:2-3a)
Having done as the Lord commanded, Gideon lost 22,000 of his 32,000 troops (v.3b). With only 10,000 men remaining, Gideon was probably thinking it couldn't possibly get any worse:
But the LORD said to Gideon, "There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. If I say, 'This one shall go with you,' he shall go; but if I say, 'This one shall not go with you,' he shall not go." So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink." Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The LORD said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place." (Judges 7:4-7)
So with 300 men remaining, Gideon begins to scout out the Midianite camp. That night, Gideon again hears from God:
During that night the LORD said to Gideon, "Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands." (v. 9)
But then, no doubt knowing what Gideon is about to say next, God adds:
"If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp." So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. (vv. 10-11)
As Gideon and Purah slip into the Midianite camp they overhear a man telling his friend of a dream. The friend quickly interprets the dream to mean, loosely translated, "Get ready for the biggest butt-kicking of your life from Gideon and the Israelites!!" Encouraged from this, Gideon wastes no time getting back to camp and proclaims to the troops, "Get up! The LORD has given the Midianite camp into your hands." (v. 15) And indeed, God gave Gideon and the Israelites a major victory over the Midianites (vv. 16-25).
Most of us regard Gideon as a man of great courage and faith who conquered much with little, thanks to God. And indeed, this is how he should be regarded. The writer of Hebrews pays homage to Gideon as an example of one who conquered kingdoms through faith (Hebrews 11:32). But at what point did Gideon become a man of great faith? While hiding from the Midianites in the winepress? While testing God with the fleece? While assembling the troops for battle? Or was it when he heard the dream in the Midianite camp? When he finally realized that indeed, God really was going to do as He said.
We look to Gideon as a role-model, just as perhaps Gideon looked to Moses. But neither of these men were born faithful--rather, they became men of faith. It's hard to study a passage such as the one we have examined in the life of Gideon and conclude that herein lies a shining example of faith in action.
Just as Gideon might have been following Moses' lead, the temptation is great for us to follow Gideon's example. We all love to play the "fleece game" when it comes to decision-making. We convince ourselves that if God really wants us to do X, then He needs to do Y. Sometimes God may indulge our lack of faith, but sometimes he may not. There's nothing wrong with asking God for divine intervention. But think about this: What if the test of the fleece had failed for Gideon? Would he have been any less liable for having ignored God's expressed will for his life?
When Gideon said to God, "do not be angry with me" (Judges 6:39), he said this for good reason. God had already commanded Moses, "Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah" (Deuteronomy 6:16, cf. Exodus 17:2). Gideon knew what he was doing was not right, but he was too frightened to act otherwise. His request for a "sign" in verse 17 echos that of Moses in Exodus 4:1-17 but this was hardly a time where Moses was exercising great faith. Let's not forget God's reaction to Moses' lack of faith: " . . . the Lord's anger burned against Moses" (v. 14).
Often times, Christians like to set out various types of fleece in an attempt to discern the will of God for a particular situation. But is this biblical? A key point here is the fact that both Moses and Gideon already knew what the will of God was when they asked for a "sign." Given our study of Moses and Gideon one can only conclude that the use of a "fleece" is not only inappropriate, but also inapplicable to situations where we are seeking God's will. Put another way, there is no biblical basis for ascertaining the will of God through any kind of "test" that involves Him.
So rather than focus on "signs" that will make our decisions clear and straightforward, we need to focus our attention instead on the "signs" of a good decision-making process. Next week, we will do just that as we examine biblical approaches to making decisions.
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Copyright © 1998 Tim A. Krell. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV), Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
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