God in the Midst of the Chaos: A Journey through Judges
Without question, the days in which we are living are days that are filled with chaos. We find tension between rival groups, power-hungry politicians, senseless and excessive violence, and moral confusion, just to get the list started! Where, we might ask, can we find God in all of this?
The days of the Judges, the period following the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, during which God then called his people to occupy the Promised Land, were also filled with chaos. The book of Judges, in fact, goes from bad to worse, ending with this ominous statement: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit" (21:25). And yet ,while Judges reveals the depths to which human sin can go, it also reveals a God who, in the midst of the chaos, pours out his grace, again and again, pulling his people back from oblivion, staying true to his purposes, and ultimately pointing us to the deliverer and king we all need.
Our journey through Judges will teach us both about the ways of the God who comes to be with us in Jesus, and about our struggle to live as his faithful followers in a world that daily tests our resolve. Join in the journey, either in-person, or virtually.
October 25, 2020
“Gideon: The Danger of Success”
Judges 7:1-9; 8:22-27
Suppose you’ve just been given a new job. You’ve been unemployed for months and it was beginning to look like you wouldn’t be able to pay your rent or even put food on the table. But a good friend had told you of an opportunity that had become available at her company, helped you to get an interview, and even put in a good word on your behalf. Now, as you prepare to begin your new job, you’re a bit nervous. What if you can’t do what you’ve been hired to do? What if you stumble? What if you fail? You’d not only be letting your family down by not being able to meet their needs; you’d also be letting your friend down who put her reputation on the line to help you find this job in the first place.
To be sure, these are real fears. Failure would be hard, and maybe even devastating. But, while many of us fear failure, few of us are afraid of the opposite. Few of us are afraid of success. Few of us consider that if we do well in our new job, we might just be tempted to take all of the credit for that success, totally forgetting the friend who helped us, and becoming hard to live with as we strut around boasting in what we’ve accomplished.
The danger of success was a very real concern that God had for his people Israel. After delivering them from slavery in Egypt, he alerts them of this danger. As they occupy the Promised Land, settling down, building houses, seeing their crops and livestock increase and their silver and gold begin to multiply, God warns them through their leader, Moses:
Then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you . . . he brought you . . . he gave you . . . [BUT] you may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me’ (Dt. 8:10-18).
In other words, God knows the tendency of the human heart, that if there’s the tiniest opportunity, not just to be satisfied with a job well done, but to boast in our own work and take credit for our success, we will. It’s not a healthy way to live in our professional life, and especially not in our spiritual life. Which is why God warns Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me’” (Jdg. 7:2).
I. Unconventional Strategy
A. In this period called the Judges (1400 – 1100 B.C., roughly), as they begin to enter and occupy the Promised Land, we’ve seen God’s people continuing to find themselves in a cycle of chaos, losing track of God, being lured by the idols in the land, and living as they see fit. To wake them up, God gives them over to foreign oppressors, but then always, in his grace, reveals that he is present in the midst of the chaos and raises up a deliverer (“judge”) to rescue his people. Gideon was one such deliverer. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen how God has worked with Gideon to strengthen and assure him of his presence, and to promise him that God would bring about a great victory through him over the oppressive Midianites.
B. But now, as Gideon seems poised to strike, God shares with him some rather unconventional strategy. God instructs Gideon to reduce the strength of his army, rather drastically, from 32,000 soldiers to a mere 300. Getting rid of 22,000 who were honestly too afraid to fight might not have been a totally bad idea, but then jettisoning another 9,700 just for the way they drank water from a brook seems totally absurd, leaving Gideon with only 300 men to fight what we later learn is a force of 135,000, plus a horde of camels that seemed to outnumber the sand on the seashore (8:10; 7:12).
C. Remarkably, despite the weakened state of Gideon’s forces, God brings about a great and total victory for Gideon. Unfortunately, however, nowhere do we see Gideon looking back and declaring, “This victory was God’s not mine. My only part was to trust and obey him and be privileged to be a part of what he was doing. The glory is all his.” Instead, as the account goes on, we see Gideon treating badly folks that had refused to fight with him or had not offered supplies for his troops. And we see him taking revenge on some Midianite leaders, which did not seem to be a part of his mission.
II. Misplaced Glory
A. All of which leads to Gideon’s ultimate downfall. [READ 8:22-27]. When the Israelites want to make him king because “you have saved us,” Gideon seems to talk a good game, “The LORD will rule over you,” but he never gives God the glory for the victory. And then he decides it might be useful to ask for a share of the plunder so that he can make an ephod, a device that an Israelite priest would use to help receive guidance in making godly decisions. Kind of like our bell, Gideon collected gold earrings from the soldier’s plunder in the amount of 43 pounds, not to mention additional symbols of power from the conquered kings and their camels, all of which he crafted into an object that the people began to worship. In a kind of twisted irony, Gideon seems to build a new altar to Baal at the place where he had torn down a similar altar that his father had once built. And once again such a pagan altar became a snare to Gideon and his family. It was a repeat of Aaron’s failure with the golden calf (Ex. 32:2-8).
B. What happened? Well, when it looked like he wasn’t going to be able to do what God was asking him too, Gideon was not afraid of admitting his fear and his weakness. But after he experienced success, such went to his head. Not only did he refuse to acknowledge his weakness, but he claimed God’s strength for his own; he sought the glory that was rightly due the Lord. What we see Gideon and the Israelites begin to do was take credit for delivering themselves, believing that they were a kind of alternative savior, which is what an idol really is.
C. It’s why Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8-9, “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast.” The danger here is that when we begin to boast in what we think is our own success, then it’s not all that far a move to begin to believe that unless we’re successful, God will not love us. That’s why the picture of an infant resting in a parent’s or pastor’s arms to receive the gift of baptism is so poignant. The infant is beloved by God not because of his or her effort, but simply by God’s grace, God’s undeserved favor, by what God, in Christ, has done on their behalf.
D. There is actually a wonderful picture of this in Gideon’s battle plan, if he would only have looked back and pondered it for a bit. In attacking the Midianites, Gideon equips his men with trumpets and torches hidden inside clay jars. The men enter the Midianite camp at night, during the changing of the guard. The blow their trumpets and smash their jars. The ensuing noise and light puts the Midianite soldiers, and probably all of their camels as well, into such confusion that they begin attacking themselves, a confusion the narrator tells us is from the LORD (7:22).
E. Perhaps Paul has this episode in mind as he writes to the church in Corinth, the central thesis of his second letter to that congregation being about the strength and triumph of God despite human weakness:
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. [2 Cor. 4:5-7]
When we’re aware of our weakness it is no impediment to God’s ability to work for us and through us, and it’s far better than believing that on our own we can be strong. For the treasure that dwells within us, as jars of clay, is the glory of God in the face of Christ; it’s the beauty of Jesus. If we are willing to put aside all of our boasting and all of our drive for worldly success and be willing instead to be broken in God’s service, giving glory to his strength and not our own, there is no telling what he may do, both in us and through us.