The Struggle to Believe
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 6
This morning, we are going to begin studying another incredible story. It’s such a great story that Gideon is one of the most famous OT characters. And because Gideon obeyed God’s very unusual battle plan, he earned himself a place in Hebrews 11 among the great examples of faith in the OT.
But while Gideon took a remarkable step of faith that day, we are going to see that he was also deeply flawed character. In fact, he represents a disappointing turn in Judges. In particular, the judges we have studied so far—Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah—are all courageous, godly leaders, who were zealous for God’s glory. But the final 3 major judges—Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson—all have major character flaws and oversaw times of spiritual disaster. Therefore, their stories are more about God’s kindness than about courageous godliness. As a result, they provide a powerful example of the steadfast love of the Lord that we studied last Sunday in Psalm 136.
It all begins in Judges 6. Israel is a wreck, and they don’t deserve deliverance. And Gideon is anything but a man of faith and courage. He has no business leading them, and yet God’s steadfast love shines through the darkness in a remarkable display. And so let’s read Judges 6 and see what we can learn about God’s steadfast love and about how we must respond to his grace (read). Verses 1–10 begin the story by reminding us…
I. Sin deserves judgment (vv. 1–10).
The Midianite Oppression (vv. 1–6): Like all the stories in Judges, this story begins in a dark time. Verse 1 says that Israel again “did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord delivered them into the hand of Midian.”
And this will be the worst oppression Israel has endured to this point. You see the Midianites were nomadic, desert people. They lived in tents, and they were constantly moving throughout the desert searching food and water. And once a year they would move their entire civilization (v. 5) (not just their army), including families and livestock into the Jezreel Valley (map), which was the breadbasket of Israel.
They would come shortly after the crops were planted (v. 3) when the land was green and lush, and v. 5 says they overran the land like a locust plague. They would send their livestock herds out into the freshly-planted crops, and they ate all of them. And the Midianiate soldiers raided the Israelite farms either taking or killing all the sheep, oxen, and donkeys they could find.
And they extended their raids all the way to Gaza, which as you can see on the map is a long ways from the Jezreel Valley. And after they had taken everything of value the moved on until the next year, leaving nothing for Israel except what they could hide in the mountains and caves.
And finally Israel grew so desperate that they “cried out to the Lord.” However, we will see later in the chapter that Israel never abandoned their idols, so this was clearly not a cry of repentance, just a desperate attempt to avoid hardship. As a result God sends a prophet who announces…
God’s Condemnation (vv. 7–10): The prophet rehearses all God had done for Israel. He had clearly proven that he was the Lord and that he was worthy of Israel’s confidence. But (v. 10) Israel had rebelled against God’s most basic demand in the 1st of the Ten Israel was not to worship or fear any gods except the Lord, which is a very reasonable demand considering God’s supreme glory.
But sadly God concludes, “You have not obeyed my voice.” Instead, Israel committed “harlotry” with the gods of the Canaanites. And God judged them harshly for their rebellion. And I want to park for a moment on God’s severe judgment on Israel’s sin, because the remainder of the chapter is going to highlight God’s abundant grace to Israel.
It’s a reminder that we should never presume on the grace of God. If you understand God’s steadfast love to mean that you can largely do what you want and not strive for holiness, then you don’t understand grace, and you may not be a Christian, no matter what you prayed at some point.
No, this section reminds us that God demands our complete allegiance. And while the NT clearly teaches that Christians will never face God’s wrath, it also teaches they hate sin, confess sin, and strive for holiness. So we should never see God’s grace as a license to sin. Rather, the judgment Israel endured should serve as sober reminder that God hates sin and so should we.
But Israel refused to remain faithful. And when the prophet is done, it’s clear that Israel deserves to have God completely remove his hand, and to leave them to their own destruction. But as we saw last week, God is a God hesed or steadfast love, so remarkably he shows grace rather than continued judgement. Notice in vv. 11–24 that…
II. God is faithful even when we are not (vv. 11–24).
Verse 11 begins the section by introducing us to 2 characters. The first is the “Angel of the Lord.” We’ll learn in a few verses that this angel is actually the Lord himself, who apparently veiled his glory and appeared as a man.
And he sat down under a tree, and he watched as the 2nd character Gideon threshed wheat. Gideon is identified as the son of Joash the Abiezrite. This means that he was from the tribe of Manasseh (map), in an area that was significantly affected by the Midianite invasion. And at this point he doesn’t seem like a likely hero. He’s not out fighting Midianites; rather, he’s hiding from them, threshing grain like a regular guy trying to survive. But God has big plans for Gideon.
Gideon’s Call (vv. 12–18): He approaches Gideon and makes a stunning declaration (v. 12), “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor!” That’s quite the claim. But Gideon is not impressed or excited; rather, he is skeptical. He probably didn’t realize he was speaking to the Lord, so he gives a biting, sarcastic reply (v. 13).
To put it in our words, Gideon says, “The Lord is with us? Yeah right. If God is with us, then why are we suffering? God’s not with us; he has abandoned us.” Gideon holds God responsible for Israel’s plight, and he is bitter against God for supposedly abandoning Israel. He has no sense of how Israel had sinned against God. He certainly doesn’t seem like someone worthy to be a judge.
And If I were God, I’d be tempted to put Gideon in his place, but instead, God graciously ignores Gideon’s accusation and continues on (v. 14). This is truly remarkable! Israel deserves judgment, and Gideon has just accused God of being the problem, and yet God says, “I’m going to use you to deliver my people.” What a statement of God’s steadfast love!
But Gideon is reeling, as he tries to process what is happening, and he’s starting to realize whom he’s talking to. But he knows, that’s he’s not the guy to lead a rebellion, and so he fires off some excuses. Which are partly true but partly false, but certainly not an expression of Ehud would already have his dagger strapped on, but Gideon does not have the same faith, so he requests a sign. And (v. 18b) the Lord graciously agrees to wait and to demonstrate his acceptance…
God’s Acceptance (vv. 19–24): Gideon goes off and prepares what is clearly an offering, not a meal, since an ephah of flour is 34-45 pounds. But Gideon was probably more familiar with Baal worship than Yahweh worship, so his offering is more like a meal the pagans would offer the gods than something in the Law. Yet the Lord waits, while Gideon stumbles along.
And when Gideon finally returns and places the offering on a rock, the Lord, touches the offering, causing fire to burst from the rock, and consume the entire offering. And just like that the Lord disappeared.
I’m sure Gideon was stunned. “Wow, what did I just see?” But then he realizes that he had been speaking to Yahweh, Israel’s God. And then he feared that he was about to die, because he had seen God’s face, though it was veiled in human form. But God quickly reassured him by saying, “Peace be with you; do not fear, you shall not die.”
And so despite Gideon’s snide remarks, his lack of faith, and his failure to bring and appropriate sacrifice, God accepted him and extended peace. And I want to emphasize it was all grace. Therefore, vv. 11–24 are a powerful demonstration of God’s covenant love for his people. Even when Israel abandoned God, he didn’t abandon them. God pursued them and raised a deliverer. And even when Gideon accused God of betraying his people and tried to decline God’s call, God continued to pursue Gideon and show grace.
Aren’t you thankful that this is our God? This is because as much as we shake our heads at Gideon’s lack of faith, God found us in a similar state. 1 John 4:10 that when God found us, we didn’t love God; we rejected God. But “He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Therefore, it doesn’t matter how you have sinned against God, you can be saved today if you will repent of your sin and believe on Christ.
And even after we are saved, we continue to fall so short. But God remains faithful and gracious. God’s love is truly a “Love that will not let me go.” And how we ought to rejoice that, “His mercy endures forever.”
And how we need to learn to rest in that mercy day by day. The song “Before the Throne” hits the nail on the head when it says, “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see him there who made an end to all my sin.” And so Christian, learn to rest in that mercy, when you fail. Remember that Jesus is interceding for you, and believe that God is faithful and gracious even when we are not. Do not give in to Satan’s temptation to despair.
Returning the story, Gideon is clearly amazed. He has seen the Lord, he has seen his power, and he has experienced his grace. He believes that Yahweh is the Lord. As a result, he honors the Lord and celebrates his grace by building an altar, which he names, “The Lord is Peace.” But very quickly the hard realities of God’s glory set in, and Gideon faces his first major test in vv. 25–35. In particular, if God is the supreme lord, the implication is…
III. God demands exclusive worship (vv. 25–35).
In this section, God drives home the fact that Israel’s greatest problem was not the Midianites but their idolatry and rebellion against God. Therefore, before Gideon could lead Israel in defeating the Midianites, he first had to deal with the idolatry at home. Notice…
God’s Demand (vv. 25–27): Despite Gideon’s claim earlier that he came from an insignificant family, it’s clear here his father Joash was a wealthy community leader, who sponsored a significant shrine to Baal and Asherah. And yet God commands Gideon to take his father’s bulls and pull down the Baal alter and to cut down the Asherah pole. Not only that, he is to build an altar to Yahweh in its place, sacrifice his dad’s prize bull, and burn it on the wood from the Asherah pole.
Talk about a really hard step of obedience. God was asking Gideon to potentially upset his whole community and even of his own father. Gideon could lose his place in his family, and he could even lose his life. Of course God understood that, but he also understood that Gideon and all Israel’s fundamental need was holiness and exclusive commitment to the Lord.
And the same is true of us. So often we spend all our time worrying about the Midianites. We’ve got to do our jobs, pay our bills, care for our families, and fix the car. Of course all these things matter, but understand that there is nothing going on in your life that is more important than your walk with the Lord. He demands that you love him with all your heart, and he demands that you walk in holiness and truth before him.
Therefore, I don’t care what significant priorities you have for the coming week, if you have another god who is rivaling the Lord or you are tolerating sin you know God forbids, your highest priority today, is to tear down that idol, burn it, and give God the place he rightly deserves. And if you aren’t even sure where to start because your heart is mess, know that you are surrounded by friends who want to help you get where you need to be.
And so Gideon knew what he had to do, but he was also very afraid. We can certainly sympathize with his fear, but the way the narrator highlights it in v. 27 indicates that God was not so sympathetic. Gideon lacked the bold faith of Ehud and Deborah.
So he decided to obey God’s command at night. He takes 10 servants (indicating again that his earlier excuse was bogus), and he tears down the Baal altar, builds a Yahweh altar, and sacrifices his dad’s prize bull on the altar. What a statement for the Lord, but what a risk for Gideon. But God proves to be worthy of Gideon’s allegiance. Notice in vv. 28–32…
Baal’s Humiliation (vv. 28–32): In this section, we get a glimpse at how pagan Israel had become and why it was necessary that Gideon destroy the Baal altar. This is because when morning comes and the community sees what had happened, they unite into an angry mob, and they demand that Joash turns him over to die. In their minds, Gideon had committed a capital crime. Baal meant that much to them.
And we are probably wondering how Joash will respond. He was clearly steeped in Baalism, since it was his altar. And his prize bull that he had kept hidden from the Midianites for 7 years was burning on the altar. But surprisingly, Joash stands up for his son and calls out Baal.
And it might be that family took priority over religion, but the challenge he gives to Baal indicates that Gideon’s actions had turned his heart (v. 31). Baal’s altar was desecrated, and Joash could see that he wasn’t doing anything about it. Obviously all of their worship for Baal hadn’t brought safety from the Midianites or prosperity, so he seems to just walk away. And based on how Gideon will rally the Abiezrites to war, it seems that Gideon actions turned the hearts of most people in his community.
God is working. He protected Gideon and gave him success, and God is turning the hearts of his covenant people. God is faithful and gracious. And God continues to show his grace in vv. 33–40, where we see…
IV. God is gracious toward our unbelief (vv. 33–40).
With v. 33 a dark cloud settles in over the land of Israel. The Israelites have been working hard to survive and provide for the future, and God is starting to bring a revival through Gideon, but then the Midianites roll in on their annual devastation tour.
But things will be different this time because v. 34 says, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon.” Despite all of Gideon’s shortcomings, God’s Spirit clothed him with a unique power to lead the nation. And beginning with his own clan the Abiezrites, the people saw the hand of God and responded. And from the tribes most affected by the Midianites, Gideon gathers an army of 32,000 men (7:3).
They probably gathered in the mountains around the Jezreel Valley, where the Midianite camp sprawled out. It was a quite a massive camp considering they had families and livestock along. And so despite all that God had done for Gideon, he begins to doubt God’s ability to win this battle. And we can understand, because like Gideon, we often struggle to believe God’s promises.
I do think it’s important to emphasize that Gideon already knew God’s will. There was no question that God wanted him to attack. I say that because many Christians sadly use this section as a guide to discerning God’s will about various decisions. For example, they aren’t sure if they should switch jobs, so they “put out a fleece” to try to get God to tell them what choice to make. But that’s clearly not what’s happening here. Gideon was not trying to discern God’s will but to manipulate him into giving him reassurance.
And so Gideon presents a test to the Lord (v. 37). If God will cause there to be dew (for you desert rats dew is this phenomenon where there is more moisture in the air than it can hold, so the ground gets wet) on the fleece while the ground is dry, Gideon promises, “I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.” It’s funny that Gideon acknowledges that God had said what he would do, but that wasn’t enough, so he gave this test.
And graciously God responded. Praise the Lord that he graciously helps our unbelief. The next morning the ground is dry, but the fleece is soaked. God has again proven his power. But Gideon is still not sure about the fight, so he decides to test the Lord one more time. And notice that he knows he has no right to make this demand. He starts his request with, “Do not be angry with me.”
This time he makes the more difficult request, which is that the ground be wet, and the soft, water absorbent fleece be dry. But rather than putting Gideon in his place, God again, graciously answers, and the chapter ends by saying that the next morning the fleece was dry while the ground was wet. Gideon has his clear answer. God is the Lord, and he will do what he has said.
When I look at this chapter as a whole, I am reminded of Psalm 103:13–14, which say, “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” I love those verses, because I’m a lot more like Gideon than I am like Ehud. Even when we have clear promises, it’s hard to walk by faith, and we often struggle with fears and doubts. And while God demands everything of us, he is also a compassionate Father. So rather than getting frustrated and turning his back on us, he remembers that he made us from dirt, and he pities us.
And so the challenge for us is to see God for all that he is. He is the sovereign Lord who demands our full allegiance, and so we must repent of our sin and follow him with our whole hearts. And we need to live in his Word and grow a strong faith that propels us into a transformed life. And then when we fall, and we certainly will, we must fall into the cushion of God’s steadfast love, knowing that God remains faithful even when we do not. Praise the Lord for his steadfast love.