Gideon: Seeing God’s Strength
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Gideon: Seeing God’s Strength

Judges 6:1–40  (ID: 1958)

The story of Gideon illustrates God’s sovereignty over our troubles as well as our deliverance. When Israel disregarded God’s grace in favor of self-reliance, He gave them into the hands of their enemies, the Midianites. Oppressed and impoverished, the people finally cried out to the Lord, who then sent weak, fearful, yet obedient Gideon to lead them in battle. Reflecting on this unusual strategy, Alistair Begg explains that God often allows hardship to remind us of our dependence on His strength and mercy.

Series Containing This Sermon

Encore 2022

A Collection of Listener Favorites Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25918

More Jars of Clay

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 22502

Sermon Transcript: Print

I’d like to do what has been my brief, and that is to open the Scriptures with you. And I invite you to turn with me to the book of Judges and to chapter 6. What I’d like to do is to spend today and tomorrow morning with the story of Gideon. And I can’t take time to read all the way through all of it, but perhaps I’ll just turn you to Judges 6:34, which reads, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet.” “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet.” And in 7:2: “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…’”

Now, for all I know, this is where the message ended up last night—in which case, this is simply a reiteration of it, because I never heard the end, and I haven’t checked. But this was where it took me in my own thinking. And if this afternoon has something of the smell of fresh bread to it—which is as good an aroma as I can think of for what is before me in my notes—then you will perhaps be able to sympathize with me as pastors. In other words, this is sort of out of the oven between listening to the message last evening and arriving here at eleven thirty this morning. And so, it is not fashioned and honed, but you’re well aware of that because you do it frequently yourselves. And it’s just every so often that someone’s honest enough to admit it. But of course, I’m only seeking to curry your sympathy, as you know, which is pathetic, really, when you think about it. But you should feel free to tear it to shreds, in any case, as I would yours.

The great danger that presents itself in preaching out of Old Testament narrative is the danger of a dreadful kind of devotional preaching. I don’t mean that all devotional preaching is dreadful, but there is a dreadful kind of devotional preaching—the kind of sermon title out of a great chunk of Old Testament narrative which would run something like “Gideon Blew His Trumpet. Why Don’t You Blow Yours?” And the key to this kind of preaching is that you read the Bible, you close the Bible, and you never refer to the Bible again. Or “Dealing with the Locusts in Your Life.” Or “Squeezing the Fleece.” Now, it’s only funny because you preach some of these, and you’re annoyed that I am mentioned them.

So, we remind ourselves that if we’re going to preach effectively from the Bible, we must always be men under control—first that we would obviously be under the control of the direction of the Holy Spirit, but then that we would be under the control of the text itself. And if there are only three things in the purchase of real estate—namely, location, location, and location—then there are only three things in the faithful exposition of Scripture: context, context, context. And in order to safeguard the kind of leaps into oblivion which can be very impressive to the unschooled, we must always try our best to ensure that we pay attention to the context in which the verse is set and the context in which the surrounding verses are set, and make sure that in seeking to go from the centuries before Christ to the late twentieth century, that we do so by way of the immediate application in the historical context to which the matters address themselves.

Now, I simply say that in passing because all of us want to be better at our preaching, I’m sure, and one of the great dangers for us is that, for example, when we are preaching from the book of Corinthians, we’re very keen to get from the text to Chicago or to Cleveland: “This is what 1 Corinthians 3 says, and we’re in Chicago, and this is what it means.” And it is possible for us to do it without ever paying attention to what it had to say to Corinth. And the only way to get effectively to Chicago is to go via Corinth. And the only way to get effectively to the application of these verses is, of course, to pay very careful attention to the historic context in which these matters arise.

Now, I say that as much in preaching to myself, to prevent myself from doing what I have a great proclivity to do, and that is to immediately launch off into flights of fancy, because the story of Gideon provides tremendous opportunity for those kind of vertical takeoff operations.

I do believe that it is possible for me to assume a certain measure of knowledge, and if I’m wrong on that, then I apologize immediately. But we can, I think, identify the fact that here, in the book of Judges, there is a recurring cycle which is taking place. I’m not going to go painstakingly at this point in the afternoon through these things; one, I think you know this, and two, if you don’t, I think you’ll take my word for it, and then you will check to see whether what I’m saying is true. Sometimes the commentators refer to the cycle in terms of sin and servitude, and supplication and salvation. In other places you may have it referred to in terms of rebellion—the rebellion of God’s people—the retribution which comes from God upon his people, the repentance of a sort which his people then exercise, and the rescue which God in turn provides for those who have turned their hearts towards him.

And in this recurring cycle of events, we read the story of Gideon. And it is vitally important that we understand that the story of what God is doing with Gideon finds its significance ultimately and only in the wider story of what God is doing with his people. And it is for that reason that it is very, very important that we do not make the application simply from Gideon to ourselves immediately but that we recognize that that which was true of the people of God in an earlier era is the first point of identification with the people of God in the present era, and that we will find ourselves mirrored in this sad, recurring cycle of events into which God places his choice servants, not least of all this interesting chap by the name of Gideon.

God’s purpose throughout all of time has been to redeem for himself a people that are his very own.[1] And his focus throughout all of time is upon that people who are his very own. And it is important that we understand it also because it serves as a healthy reminder in a generation that is increasingly preoccupied with individuals and with personalities. It is not that individuals are irrelevant or that personalities have no significance, but it is that in the unfolding plan of what God is doing in the totality of his kingdom, in that unfolding plan, individuals find significance. But none of those whom God has raised up to be useful to him—whether known or unknown, whether apparently prominent or unprominent—none of us has any significance apart from the overarching and unfolding plan and purpose of God from eternity to eternity. And the message of Gideon is therefore to be understood in light of that.

The story of what God is doing with Gideon finds its significance ultimately and only in the wider story of what God is doing with his people.

Whatever the story of Gideon is about, I suggest to you it is a classic illustration of what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 and to which we have already had reference this afternoon. Two Corinthians 12:9, the Lord speaks to Paul in his weakness, and he says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Whatever else the story of Gideon is, it is a story of the weakness of the people God chooses to use, it is a story of the apparently overwhelming strength of the enemy, and it is a story of God’s methods of perfecting his own strength in the experience of weakness. Now, that, I suggest to you, is the backdrop against which we understand the second verse of chapter 7. And if the Lord spares us, we’ll come there tomorrow.

“The Lord said to Gideon, ‘You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands.’” Why? In order that Israel may not be self-reliant. In order that Israel may not boast that they have done this in their own power or strength. And since God’s concern is to get glory to his name, and since he will share his glory with no one else, it is his express purpose to pick up the most unlikely individuals, to put them together in the most uncertain kind of army, so that when victory is established, both those within the forces and those who observe the victory may know God surely did this. And it is to that that, of course, in pastoral ministry, we must continually be giving attention.

The enemy, we’re told, had too many people to count—that’s 6:5—and God’s people were too many, in this case, to be victorious. So in other words, the chapters provide for us a necessary corrective to the prevailing preoccupation in evangelicalism with numbers, skill, and self-congratulation. We are riddled with it! We have embraced it to such a degree that it is impossible for us now to disengage ourselves sufficiently to be able to be objective enough about how endemic the issue really is. And that’s why I was forcibly struck: not because I, last evening, immediately began to apply it to people who lived up the street from me but because I felt the application press in on my own heart and life.

Let’s take a look at God’s people, and then let’s take a look at God’s servant.

God’s People

We’re in chapter 6. What are we told of God’s people? Well, we’re told that “again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Now, this is the expression of the cycle. If you turn over back one page in your Bible to Judges 5:31, that ends, “Then the land had peace [for] forty years.” So after forty years of peace, here we go all over again! Just when we might have anticipated that they had finally cracked it, that they had understood it, that the pathway of trust and of obedience was clear to them, we turn the page, and here we go again: “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites.” And they were, according to verse 2, oppressed.

So we find the people of God oppressed. And the strength of the oppression, the strength of the opposition against them, is depicted for us there as we find them preparing shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, hiding in caves, creating strongholds, and finding themselves on the receiving end of the devastating intervention of the Midianites, the Amalekites, and a whole host of other eastern peoples who invaded the country. And they came whenever the fancy took them to maraud the place, to burn the crops, to pillage them, and to return to the place that they’d come from. The people of God were oppressed. And whenever these folks chose, it would seem—that’s the significance, I think, of the “whenever” and the tenses which follows—they would come, they would attack, and they would destroy.

Now, the size of the oppression is given description there in the second half of verse 5: when they put down their livestock and their tents, they were like “swarms of locusts,” and “it was impossible to count the men and their camels,” and “they invaded the land to ravage it.”

So, quite straight forwardly, as we look at the text, the first thing we notice is that the people of God went back to their same nonsense; they began to do evil again in the sight of the Lord, and they found themselves oppressed. They found themselves, according to verse 6, “impoverished.” And the oppression and the impoverishment were interwoven: ruined crops, livestock destroyed, and the sense of the enemies against them being of such an overwhelming dimension that they could do nothing to stop them.

And right at the very beginning of it all we read the phrase “For seven years [God] gave them into the hands of the Midianites.” God took his own people, the object of his special affection, and he ordered the events of their lives so as to ensure that they would experience in their physical frames, in their hearts, in their minds, in their families, in their worship, the devastating impact of what happens when the people of God become self-reliant. It cannot be done without cost. It will never be done without pain. And God is true to his word today as he was then. Into this land of too many people God had given his own people.

And so, as before, the folks cry out to him. And “when the Israelites cried [out] to the Lord because of Midian,” verse 7—you see the cycle: rebellion, retribution, a cry for rescue, some posture at least of repentance—“when the Israelites cried [out] to the Lord because of Midian,” it doesn’t say he sent them a savior, but “he sent them a prophet.” “He sent them a prophet.”

Now, this is what we’d seen before, back in chapter 4—the exact same thing. The people had found themselves on the receiving end of all this kind of oppression, and in that instance, it was Deborah, a prophetess, who was leading Israel at that time. And God had raised her up, along with Barak, for this express purpose.

Now, what does the prophet do? Well, the prophet speaks, ’cause that’s what prophets are supposed to do. But he doesn’t speak to them in the way that they might have wanted, nor does he speak to them in the way that they might have feared. They might have wanted him to say, “You know, God has been a little displeased with you, but he’s not very displeased. And he’s glad to hear that you’re wising up, and so he wants you to know that it doesn’t really matter, and have a nice day.” They might have expected and hoped for that kind of message. They might have feared, on the other hand, that the prophet would come and say, “If you think this is bad, wait till you see what the next seven years are going to be like!” But neither of the two things happen. The prophet simply brings a word of explanation: “He sent them a prophet, who said, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” They could remember that. “‘I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.” But you have not listened to me.’”

The word of the prophet was not, in this case, a word of condemnation; it was a word of explanation. And the prophet came to reveal to the people the incongruity of doing what they were doing. “After all,” says God through his servant, “I did this for you. I redeemed you with an outstretched hand. I brought you safely to this place. I have protected you all along the way. And yet here you are, despite all of that, and you don’t listen to me.”

Now, loved ones, I want to pause here and make a point of application. The prophetic voice is very necessary in our day. I don’t mean, now, words of prophecy that predict the future. Leave that aside. I’m talking about the prophetic voice in terms of the voice of the prophet speaking the word of God with clarity to the people of God in their generation—the voice, if you like, of John the Baptist, who is a forerunner, who is a finger pointing, he’s a light shining, he’s a voice crying.[2] But he knows he’s not the Bridegroom. He knows that he’s just the best man. But he is able to speak into his generation in a way that both understands the times in which the generation is living and understands the word of God for those times—in other words, that the great need in every generation is for men like the men of Issachar, of whom it is said, as you know, that they “understood the times” and they “knew what Israel [ought to] do.”[3]

Now, the great need for the people of God in this context was on account of the fact that they did not understand the times. They did not understand. And therefore, God sent them a prophet to ensure that they would understand. See, this is part of the pastoral responsibility. Part of the definition of preaching is surely this: to ensure that people understand—not first to ensure that they feel, not first to ensure that they are emoted, but to ensure that they understand. And we can never make others understand what we do not understand ourselves.

Part of the definition of preaching is surely this: to ensure that people understand―not first to ensure that they feel, not first to ensure that they are emoted, but to ensure that they understand.

Now, you’re sensible men and women. You judge for yourselves: Is it wrong for me to say that we’re living in an era of great cluelessness? I mean, you find books in the airport as you travel. I saw one not so long ago—it comes to mind as I speak; it’s not in my notes. But I think the book was entitled Whatever Happened to Common Sense? And someone had written a book of, you know, the most sensible stuff, I guess—you know, like “Tie your shoelaces,” “Brush your teeth,” stuff like that, essential things. And you say, “How could anybody ever make money simply explaining these routine things?”

Well, as a culture gets increasingly crazy, common sense is at a premium. And as the people of God get increasingly confused, common sense, in spiritual, theological, biblical terms, is increasingly at a premium. There is in our generation an increasing lack of spiritual discernment. There is in our generation, I suggest to you, an increasing theological vagueness, a blurring of the distinctives that have always marked historic evangelical Christianity. And it is passing people by. It won’t become significant for another generation, if Christ tarries, but it will be significant in a subsequent generation. And therefore, for today, we need to pray God that he would raise up people who, with sensitivity to people, a sensitivity to his words, a bold, unashamed conviction of the rightness of God’s truth, to stand up and say, “Hey! This is what God says.”

Now, that’s what we want. We don’t want stories. We don’t want jokes. We want to hear what God has to say! When our people come on the Lord’s Day, they want to hear from God. They don’t care about your grandmother, frankly. They’re not so concerned about the funny story that you got from the Reader’s Digest. They’re not interested in the fact that you’ve got a great closer about a golden retriever that got run over by a freight train. All of that stuff is bogus, ultimately! But they do long to hear the voice of God. And it is our conviction that when the Word of God is truly preached, the voice of God is truly heard.

And that is the word which comes here: God says, “I heard your cry. Interestingly enough, you want me to listen to you, but funnily enough, you don’t want to listen to me.” Isn’t that what it says? They cried to him, “O God, listen to us!” and God comes by, and he says in his servant, “Interestingly enough, you haven’t listened to my voice.” There was a song, I think, in the ’60s; I can’t remember who sang it. But it used to go, “Does anyone know what time it is?”[4] Do you remember that song? Who did that? Chicago! Oh! Of course! The guy on the third back row says, “I wonder if he knows what time it is?” But you know, as I move around, I find people wandering around going, “Does anybody here know what’s going on? What in the world is going on?” God says, “I’ll tell you what’s going on: you’re not listening to me.”

That’s the issue in Hebrews. That’s why you have all these warning passages in Hebrews, is it not? What’s the great warning in Hebrews 2:1? “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” We gotta pay attention to what we’ve heard, so that we don’t drift away. And what was the problem with the folks in chapter 4? It was that the message that they heard, that they had preached to them, was of absolutely “no value to them,” because although they heard it, they “did not combine it with faith.”[5] They showed up, they heard a man’s voice, they did not hear the voice of God, they did not combine it with faith, they were not those who continued and were saved, they were those who shrank back and were destroyed.[6] They were akin to those who died in the wilderness with their fingers in their ears and their hands over their eyes.

And so, says one commentator, in light of all of this, it is no coincidence that innumerable Midianites are sent as a punishment for the rejection of innumerable mercies. See? God said, “You’ve been singing ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness,’ and I know that you know those things. But why are you not listening to me? And so, in order to get you to fasten back your ears, I’m going to bring you under a period of retribution.” We have a difficulty fitting this into many of our theologies, but the Bible has no difficulty with it at all. It’s not hidden in some culvert somewhere in an obscure passage of Scripture. It sits on the very surface of Scripture. And I think it is actually an explanation as to where the church in the West is at the present time.

God’s Servant

Now, those are some things, a little couple of loaves about the people. Let me go quickly to say one or two things about God’s servant. God’s servant. Because when you get to verse 11, it’s no longer the prophet that’s speaking. You’ve got in the first six verses, incidentally, the narrator who is speaking. Then, in 7−10, you’ve the prophet speaking. And then, in verse 11, it’s the angel who starts to speak.

And what we have in this angel is a preincarnate revelation of God, a theophany. Gideon doesn’t immediately grasp it, but by the time you get to verse 14 and verse [15], he is calling the angel “Lord,” in this dramatic manifestation that we have. And “the angel of the Lord,” in verse 11, comes and sits down “under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite.” No, “The Abiezrite.” That’s better. “Joash the Abiezrite.” “Abiezrite. That is right. Abiezrite.” All right. Okay? I always tell my guys, I say, “You know, don’t read the Bible as if the words don’t matter. So, if it says, ‘Abiezrite,’ you better say it right.” So, sorry to take all that time fixing myself there, but it is important. You don’t like it when people spell your name incorrectly, and I’d hate to meet this guy later on and find out that I’d made such a hash of it.

Now, the picture here is a graphic picture. Here you’ve got this guy who under normal circumstances would be doing what he ought to be doing out in the open air—namely, threshing the wheat. And in the process of threshing wheat in the open air, they used to cast it up in the air, and if there was any breeze at all, the breeze would blow the chaff away, à la Psalm 1, and the grain, which was heavier, would settle down and would be retained. And it was customary for that threshing process to be taking place outdoors and in full view of anybody who may be passing by. But given the circumstances with these marauding eastern peoples and the Amalekites and the Midianites, etc., the people of God had been reduced to doing this as a covert operation. And so we find this man Gideon, and he is in a hollow in the ground, and he’s going at his business threshing his wheat in a winepress in order to keep it from the Midianites—presumably to keep the very sight of it from the Midianites and then to store it in a way that won’t be immediately accessible to them.

And as he goes on at his work, he is threshing away, and all of a sudden, he must have had the sensation that there was someone else just around him, as you sometimes get. And he looks up, and the angel of the Lord is sitting underneath this oak tree. And the angel speaks to him and arrests him with this amazing greeting. You know, it’s one thing just to be going about your business and meet an angel, I would guess. It’s a second thing if the angel says, “Hey, how’re you doing?” But it’s heavy duty if the angel, the first words out of his mouth are, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” Because here’s this guy who is—whatever he is, he sure doesn’t look like a mighty warrior! He’s hiding in a hole in the ground so that the mighty warriors don’t find him. Otherwise, he ain’t gonna be hidin’ in the hole in the ground anymore! And an angel shows up and says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

The callings of God never leave a man where they find him.

There’s an irony about this. There is a prophetic dimension to this. It is ironic in light of who the chap is and where he is, and it is prophetic in light of what God does with someone when he sends his messenger to speak to them. You see, this is the amazing thing about the call of God. God comes to the strangest of chaps, in the weirdest of places, sometimes oppressed and feeling the extent of their impoverishment, and the first words that he speaks to us is, “Hey, the Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” And you’re looking over your shoulder saying, “And now who is this being addressed to? I didn’t know there was somebody else in the room.” And the angel says, “No, I’m looking at you. I’m looking at you!”

You see, the callings of God never leave a man where they find him. Because when God calls us to move on, if we try and stay stationary, we don’t actually stay stationary; we move back. So once God has called, you can never stay in the same place; you either go forward with him or you go back without him. And the word of the Lord to him was, “Hey, the Lord’s with you. You’re a mighty warrior.”

Now, I love the response of verse 13. I hope you’re as encouraged by it as I am: “‘But sir,’ Gideon replied, ‘if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?’” Now, don’t get smug and all kind of pharisaical here, chaps, saying, “My, my, if, you know, if I’d had an angel come to me and say, ‘The Lord is with you, mighty warrior,’ I would have said, ‘Yes sir, angel, and I am with him and ready for service.’” No you wouldn’t. No you wouldn’t! Why are you telling lies to yourself like that? Don’t sit there, you big Pharisee, and do that stuff. This is good! This is why this is in the Bible. “But sir…” There’s a kinda strange tension in this “But sir…” It’s like, “But Lord…” If he’s Lord, there’s no “but,” you know? It’s “Yes, Lord” but not “But Lord.”

“But sir, why has all this happened? Didn’t the Lord bring us up out of Egypt? But now he has abandoned us. He’s put us in the hand of Midian.” How wonderful it is to realize that when God puts his hand on the life of an individual, someone that he’s about to use greatly, he’s prepared to tolerate the silly questions that come out of our mouths, even as he tolerates Gideon’s. It was about to become apparent to Gideon, and to all of the people, that God was as much in control of the people’s abandonment as he was in control of their deliverance. “The Lord has abandoned us,” he’s “put us into the hand of Midian.” He spoke truth there.

Cowper understood it when he wrote the hymn

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And [he] rides upon the storm.

Judge not the Lord by feeble [strength],
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.[7]

And Gideon had something of an inkling of this. And therefore, there was an incongruity in it. And there was supposed to be! There was a paradox in the greeting: “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” He looks at himself and he says, “I’m not a mighty warrior.” And that was actually true! But it was prophetic of what he was going to become as God picked him up and used him.

And “the Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go.’” He asks the questions; what does the Lord do in reply? Doesn’t answer his questions. He says, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” Now, again, “Go in the strength you have.” What strength did he have? He didn’t have any strength! He was so aware of his weakness. And he comes back, and he says, “But Lord, you say go in my strength? How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh. I’m the least in my family.”

Now, you see, this is the story of the people of God. This is true of Gideon, but it’s also true of the people of God. You think of all the proud, prophetic nations, all in the times that lead up to the end of the Old Testament, and the great rising of Assyria and Mesopotamia and all these different places, and they represented wealth, and they represented wisdom, and they had architecture, and they had power, and they had might. And God’s focus is on this funny little strip of land and this nondescript group of people. The spirit of the world is the spirit of Naaman, you know: “Isn’t there something that I could do? I thought you would come out and grant me a blessing. You want me to go and dip myself in the Jordan. Don’t you realize who I am?” God says, “Just do what I told you.”[8] And you come across the intertestamental period and into the New Testament, and they’re looking for a savior on a horse, on a charger. They’re looking for might, they’re looking for power, they’re looking for the overthrow of the Roman Empire. And here he comes, and he had no beauty that men would be attracted to him, and as sheep before his shearers was dumb, he didn’t open his mouth.[9] And people said, “You really going to save the world with this kind of stuff?”

See, it’s the same question that’s on us today. I’ll come to that in just a moment; I don’t want to anticipate myself. In verse 17, “Gideon replied, ‘If … I[’ve] found favor in your eyes, give me a sign,’” and the Lord gives him a sign: he burns up his sacrifice, and he continues to confirm that to him as he proceeds.

Our Weakness, God’s Power

Now, let me take just a moment to wrap this up, because I see that our time is gone. Now, in all of this stuff, the Lord is preparing his servant for a battle. You know the story. Where is the battle to be fought? Well, if you read the remaining section here in chapter 6, I think you may agree with me that the battle was to be fought on three fronts.

First of all, to fight the enemy that was among them. To fight the enemy that was among them. That begins in verse 25, and it goes to verse 32: “[The] same night the Lord said to him, ‘Take the second bull from your father’s herd …. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole.’” The pervasive influences of the surrounding godless culture were in the very family of the servant that God had chosen to use. And before we find ourselves, again, far too quick to speak in judgment, let us stand back for a moment and ask ourselves the question: Is it not true that we have met the enemy, in one sense, and it is us? That the real battle that we fight is a battle of an eroded holiness. It is a battle of a prevailing godlessness. It is a battle of an absorption of a culture, so much so that Tozer’s words have now proved reality rather than prophetic when from his grave, as it were, he still speaks to say, “The twentieth-century church is the best disguised set of pilgrims that the world has ever seen.” Because we have been so inculcated in so much of what is around us.

And that was the first enemy to be addressed here. “You’ve got the problem right in your own camp,” he says. “You’re gonna have to tear down this pole. You’re gonna have to smash down this altar.” You say, “Well, do we have altars to smash?” I think probably. Do we have poles around which we gather? I think we must be honest to say we do. The notion that security and comfort and enjoyment are suitable for us to bow before—or even worse, power and wealth and an unbridled self-indulgence. Says Wilcock,

In every age there are forces at work which promise to meet our desires—political programmes, economic theories, philosophical movements, entertainment industries—all having one feature in common: they are big enough to do things for us that we can[’t] do for ourselves, yet at the same time amenable to our manipulating them so [that we might] get from them what we want.[10]

And the culture around them, the water in which the boat was floating, had seeped into the boat. And the prevailing challenge to Gideon’s folks at this point is the prevailing challenge in every generation on this one front. Jesus said, “I don’t pray that you take them out of the world, but I pray that you keep them from the Evil One.”[11] And the church, especially in the realm of evangelicalism, has over history bounced between two extremes: on the one hand, isolationism, which makes us very sure of what we have to say, but there’s no one to talk to; and the other, an absorption by the culture, which gives us someone to talk to but leaves us with nothing to say.

And so God comes to his servant, he says, “I want you to fight first of all the battle that is among you. Tear down the altar. Cut down the pole. Use the pole to burn the stuff.” What does the hymn writer say?

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from [its] throne
And worship only thee.[12]

Now the big mighty warrior, verse 27, “took ten of his servants and did as [he was told].” Is there something there? I think so. Do you think he just wanted companionship? I don’t think so. I think this is as tough as he was: “Excuse me, could you come with me please?” Why? Well, it tells us: he was afraid of his family, and he was afraid of the men of the town, and he did it at night rather than in the daytime.

Do you find it rising in you again, that little Pharisee response? The little “I’m a really devoted one”? It’s comin’ up! “Whoa. I wouldn’t have been afraid. I would have done it in broad daylight.” Get serious! You’re frightened sometimes to pray on the aeroplane when you’re having your meal because the person’s so close to you in coach that they might even get born again just listening to your prayer. You doing all that scratching of your head stuff, you know. Guy’s looking like, “Does he have a big zit on his head or something? What’s the deal?”

So, notice: he did it at night, but he did it! Says Davis, “Obedience was essential … heroism [was] optional.”[13] Now, guys, some of us are waiting to be heroes before we get obedient. Heroism is optional. Let the Lord take care of making heroes. Let us take care of the business of being obedient. Go cut down the poles. Go get a few of those idols. You know what they are. I know what they are. The enemy is among us. Enough!

The enemy is around us, verse 33−35. The Midianite action now came on the back of the Canaanite thinking. Get rid of the Canaanite thinking, and then deal with the Midianite activity. Again let me quote to move things to a conclusion: “If they trust one set of worldly forces to give them prosperity, they can hardly be surprised if another set takes their prosperity away.”[14] You see, that’s what the people of God were doing. They were trusting on all these earthly things to answer the questions of their life. So God says, “You want to trust in that? Fine. I’m gonna turn it on your heads.” And God ordains that those whose hearts are set on the Canaanite gods of peace and plenty and comfort will regularly suffer the Midianite scourges of strife, depravation, and misery. “You want to have peace and comfort and prosperity, and you’re seeking it over here? Fine! Let me bring that over on your heads for a while.”

And even as God uses evil as a punishment to teach his people, he calls Gideon to rise up and oppose the very evil that he uses as a punishment. Boy, that’ll stretch your heads in the small-group Bible study, won’t it? Right? The very evil which God raises up to use as a punishment to bring his people into line, he simultaneously raises up his servant to oppose the very evil that he is using himself as a punishment to bring his people into line. “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”

Christ makes his power clear in the very obvious nature of our weakness.

And so he, Gideon, listens to the word, and he blows the trumpet. And he blows the trumpet in light of the latest invasion. And “all the Midianites,” verse 33, and “Amalekites and … eastern peoples,” they “joined forces,” and they “crossed over the Jordan,” they “camped in the Valley of [the Jordan].” And “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet.” You know, if you only had the first part of the verse, and “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he,” finish this sentence, you know? What would you say? I don’t think you would say, “and he blew a trumpet.” Now, I don’t want to be unkind to any trumpet players here, but blowing trumpets is not that big of a deal—unless it’s purposeful. And, of course, it was. He blew the trumpet.

You want to be a trumpet blower? Are you prepared to blow the trumpet? You prepared to stand up for what is right against everything that is manifestly wrong? You prepared to stand up and call homosexuality a perversion, not an alternative lifestyle? Are you prepared to deal first—am I prepared to deal first—with the enemy that is among? Am I prepared to deal with the enemy that is around?

And lastly, am I prepared to deal with the enemy that is within? “Gideon said to God, ‘If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I[’ll] place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there[’s] dew only on the fleece and all…’” You know all that stuff. You’ve preached sermons on it. You can’t remember what you said about it, because frankly, you weren’t that clear about what you were saying about it, remember? And you had it dry when it was supposed to be wet and wet when it was supposed to be dry, and goodness gracious, you had it all over the place, and people hadn’t a clue what was going on, and you wish you’d never even mentioned it in the first place. And you probably shouldn’t have done, because it’s only a very tiny part of the bigger picture! But you read in one of the old Keswick books a great sermon on the fleece, squeezing the fleece, and so you determined to do it as well. I suggest to you, don’t do it again. It was a special case to which God responded in a special way, and his broad sweep is for us to be obedient to what he has already made clear, not to sit around trying to get things wet or dry so that he can do special deals for us.

But God was really nice, really kind to Gideon, because he knew that Gideon was fearful. And he takes the fearful servant, and he picks him up, and he’s about to use him. And we’ll come to that tomorrow.

But let me give you a final illustration of a fearful servant. November 21, 1873, Dwight L. Moody reaches Scotland. And one of the biographers says,

Scottish people are eminent for their knowledge of theology. … He who would edify a congregation of [Scotsmen] must come to them with the beaten oil of the sanctuary; and pour it … from vessels of a proper and traditional form. He should be a man of high attainments in learning; the stamp of some college should be upon him; and more than all, he should come with the endorsement of some eminent body of divines. All these things were [lacking] in Mr. Moody. If there were any … preacher in all the world who was likely to be rejected in Scotland, aside from the power of God which attended him, D[wight] L. Moody was that man.[15]

And God came to him and said, “Hey, Moody, my mighty warrior.” And “the farewell meeting of … Moody and Sankey … was held … on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat,” that big knoll of grass that you’ve seen on Chariots of Fire when Eric and his sister walk out there and talk to one another; it’s down behind Holyrood Palace, at the bottom of the Royal Mile. “The farewell meeting of Moody and Sankey … was held … on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat; no building being at all adequate to accommodate the vast congregation. … From [the] historic seat of [Christianity], which they had entered [in fear and] trembling, they went forth, with … joy in their hearts.”[16] Why? Because God, in the immensity of his purpose to redeem a people for himself, decided to pick up an interesting chap in the midst of his days and have him blow his trumpet.

So to those of us who feel overwhelmed by the enemy, who feel crushed by our own sense of weakness, and to those of us who have become increasingly self-reliant, may these thoughts, random as they are, turn us again to the Scriptures and again to Christ, who makes his power clear in the very obvious nature of our weakness.

[1] See Titus 2:14.

[2] See Isaiah 40:3.

[3] 1 Chronicles 12:32 (NIV 1984).

[4] Robert Lamm, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (1969). Lyrics lightly altered.

[5] Hebrews 4:2 (NIV 1984).

[6] See Hebrews 10:39.

[7] William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).

[8] See 2 Kings 5:11−14.

[9] See Isaiah 53:2,7.

[10] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Judges: Grace Abounding, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992), 80.

[11] John 17:15 (paraphrased).

[12] William Cowper, “O for a Closer Walk with God” (1772).

[13] Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, Focus on the Bible (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2000), 98.

[14] Wilcock, Message of Judges, 81.

[15] W. H. Daniels, D. L. Moody and His Work (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875), 266–67.

[16] Daniels, 291.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.