God’s Strength and My Weakness
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 7:1–8:21
On November 12, Stan Lee passed away. I didn’t know who he was, but I quickly learned that Stan Lee was the center of the comic book world. He created many of our culture’s most famous superheroes, including the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man.
Since Stan Lee was a such significant culture-shaper, there was lots of reflection on his impact in the following days. One theme seemed to pop up over. Stan Lee’s Wikipedia page captures this sentiment well when it says, “Lee (gave) his superheroes a flawed humanity...Before this, most superheroes were idealistically perfect people with no serious, lasting problems. Lee introduced complex, naturalistic characters who could have bad tempers, fits of melancholy, and vanity; they bickered amongst themselves, worried about paying their bills and impressing girlfriends, got bored or were even sometimes physically ill.”
In other words, part of what made Lee’s characters so captivating was that they felt like real people. Their weakness added tension to their stories, and it also helped the reader identify with them. It made me wonder if Stan Lee had read Judges, because a one reason Gideon and Samson are such captivating characters is because they have real problems that we can understand. Therefore, when we read their stories, we see ourselves, and we see how God responds to people like us. And it brings to life what we know about God.
This is certainly true of Gideon’s story. Last Sunday, we studied Judges 6 and Gideon’s struggle to believe God’s promises and God’s gracious but firm resolve to get Gideon and Israel where they needed to be. And God was faithful, and so at the end of Judges 6, Gideon has destroyed the Baal altar in his hometown, and he has gathered an army.
Today, we are going to look at Gideon’s battle against the Midianites. And 2 themes are going to stand out, “God’s Strength and My Weakness.” God is going to show his power in an incredible display. And what makes this display so impactful is that it happens against the backdrop of Gideon’s weakness, militarily but especially spiritually. And when we see what God did for Gideon we also see how God responds to us with both power and grace. I’d like to divide our study into 3 principles related to our weakness. Notice first in 7:1–15….
I. Our weakness is necessary for seeing God’s glory (7:1–15).
Judges 6 closes with Gideon and his army poised to attack the Midianites. But before the battle God has 2 detours to prepare Gideon for the attack. Ironically, the first makes him weaker, and the second makes him stronger. Notice in vv. 2–8 how…
God made Gideon weak (vv. 2–8). At this point, Gideon has an army of 32,000 men. That’s a lot of men, but notice how the Midianites are described in 12. They had an innumerable force of soldiers and camels, so Gideon was seriously undermanned.
And yet notice what God says in the most important statement of the chapter (v. 2). God says, “Gideon you have too many men.” Why? Because 32,000 men is just enough that you will take credit for the victory and not recognize that God was the one who defeated the Midianites. As a result, God determined to make things more difficult by whittling down Gideon’s army.
In the process God teaches us 2 very important lessons. First, God knows that when sinners feel strong, we lose sight of our dependence on God. We can all identify can’t we? We know in our heads that we are weak, but when life is going smoothly, we begin to flex our puny little muscles like we are something. Therefore, God doesn’t send hardship because he enjoys making us miserable but because he knows our pride.
We need to remember this when life is hard. Have you ever griped to God, “Lord, why can’t you just let one thing be easy?” as if God revels in my pain. We need to remember that it’s our pride that makes hardship necessary, not some nastiness in God. Rather God understands that hardship is necessary for our ultimate good, which brings us to a 2nd important lesson.
We need to know the glory of God more than we need to know an easy path. This verse is an important reminder that fearing the Lord is really important. It’s more important than an easy victory, good health, a full bank account, and a stress-free workweek. And if this so, then we need to value the fear of the Lord and aggressively pursue it. Don’t live your life running from everything that is hard. Rather, live your life chasing after the fear of the Lord and learning to walk before him in reverence and obedience.
And because God understood this was Israel’s greatest need, 3–7 describe how God whittled down Gideon’s army. First, God told Gideon to send home all the men who were afraid. And I’m sure that Gideon’s heart sank when 22,000 men or over 2/3 of his army left. Gideon probably thought, “Wow, that should do it, because there’s no way we can win with 10,000 soldiers.”
But God’s not done. He states in v. 4, “The people are still too many.” So God sends Gideon down to the water, and tells him is to send home all the soldiers who put their mouths directly into the stream, and to keep those who use their hands to cup water up to their mouths. And many people have speculated that this was a test of alertness. That may be partially true, but God is not primarily concerned to find out who the Navy SEALS are.
Rather, God’s main concern is to create humanly impossible And he definitely accomplishes that by leaving Gideon with only 300 men. And so God made things very difficult, because Israel needed to know the power of God more than they needed an easy victory. And in the process God set the stage to declare his glory in a manner that still affects us some 3,000 years later. But before the battle, God has one more detour in store. This time…
God made Gideon strong (vv. 9–15). I love what God says in vv. 9–10 because they give us a beautiful window into the grace of God. God begins by again telling Gideon very clearly that he will give Gideon the victory (v. 9). Based on everything God had done this should have been enough.
But God knows we are weak, and he knew Gideon’s heart. As a result, God pities Gideon, and he makes a gracious offer ( 10). What a powerful illustration of God’s fatherly compassion! And what a blessing it is to know that he has the same compassion toward us. Like Gideon, our faith is often weak. We struggle to believe and obey even when God’s Word is clear.
And I don’t want to minimize the fact that unbelief and disobedience are sinful, and we should never excuse them, but God is also sympathetic and gracious. How we ought to be amazed by his fatherly pity, and how we need to learn to take refuge in his care when we are frustrated by our weakness. Our God is not a vindictive enemy; he is a compassionate Father.
Well, as you would expect Gideon was still fearful, so he takes God up on his offer. And God tells him to go down to the Midianite camp, where he has a special sign awaiting him. And once he reaches the camp Gideon overhears a fascinating conversation between 2 Midianite soldiers.
The first soldier rehearses an odd dream in which a loaf of bread comes rolling down the mountain. And please note that we are talking about a loaf of bread, not some huge bolder or flood of water. There’s nothing scary about bread rolling down a mountain. And yet this loaf of bread knocks over a tent. Then the 2nd soldier interprets the dream (v. 14). He is sure the dream represents a coming destruction at the hand of Gideon.
And when Gideon hears this conversation, he finally believes. He knows this dream was from God, and he knows that God will give the victory. So before even leaving the Midianite camp he stops to bow in worship. And notice the conviction with which he speaks to his men when he returns to the camp (v. 15b). It had been a long road, but God patiently and graciously brought Gideon to the point where he was ready to lead his men into battle. This brings us to the 2nd stage of the story, where we see…
II. Our weakness does not limit God’s power (7:16–25).
Gideon has finally become Israel’s courageous leader, but he still only has 300 soldiers, so attacking the Midianites still seems crazy. And Gideon’s unusual battle plan (vv. 16–18) only adds to the craziness.
It’s sort of funny to picture the scene. Gideon gathers his 300 men. He gets them all riled up with a compelling call to trust the Lord, and then he starts explaining his plan. He says, “Alright guys, here’s what we’re going to do. We are going to divide into 3 companies and surround the camp.” And his men think, “Good idea.” Next, Gideon says, “I want you to take off all your weapons, and I want each of you to grab a trumpet, torch, and clay jar.” And the guys look at him very confused. And then Gideon says, “When I give the signal, we are going to make a lot of noise and show our torches. And then we are just going to stand there, while the Midianites kill each other.”
It’s a pretty unusual plan isn’t it? I imagine that they don’t teach this one in officer training at West Point. But at this point, Gideon and his 300 men knew God was their only hope, because God had taken away any smidge of self-confidence. There was no human means by which they could win this battle no matter what strategy they followed, so they put their lives in God’s hand and did what Gideon asked, which brings us to…
God’s Miraculous Deliverance (vv. 19–25): Verse 19 says that Gideon and his men took up their positions during the “middle watch,” which was probably somewhere around midnight, when almost all the soldiers would have been in a deep sleep. Everything was very quiet and peaceful. The Midianites have no idea the Israelites are right above their camp.
And then the moment of truth comes for Gideon and the 300. At Gideon’s command, the 300 do their best to startle the Midianites. 300 trumpets blast in sudden unison, and the men break the jars revealing their flaming torches. And then they shout, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon.”
And all the Midianite soldiers are startled from their sleep by the trumpets and the war cry. Imagine them stumbling out of their tents while they quickly strap on their weapons. And to their horror they see Israelite torches down tight against the camp on every side. It would be very startling. But these are trained soldiers. They shouldn’t have completely lost their senses.
But 21 says, “The Lord set every man’s sword against his companion throughout the whole camp.” And so I imagine that a Midianite soldier sees a man running with his sword, and he assumes he’s an Israelite, so he kills him. And a 3rd soldier sees the second guy kill a Midianite, and so he attacks the 2nd guy. And before long, the Midianites don’t know who’s who, and they are killing each other.
And all the while, Gideon and his men are just standing their making noise and watching the Midianites self-destruct. Gideon was stunned as he did nothing while God kept his word and wiped out the Midianite army. What an incredible sight, and what a mighty demonstration of God’s miraculous power!
And we should also stand back in amazement that this is our God! He can turn the hearts of men with ease, and he can wipe away armies with the flick of his wrist. And that means that there is no person on this planet and no challenge you will face that can resist his will.
And the challenge for us is to believe that God really is sovereign, and then to learn, in the words of Moses how to, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” Very often we don’t get the chance to see God do great things because we are too busy trying to fix everything. Obviously, God expects us to work hard and be wise. He doesn’t bless laziness.
But very often God has to bring us to the end of ourselves. We hate it when God does this, so we try everything in our power to fix it ourselves. But we eventually have to accept that we can’t make someone get saved or make the right decision. You can’t change a heart when there is conflict or fix a problem at work, at least not in a way that stays true to God’s commands.
And God brings you to your knees in prayer and makes you wait on him. God makes you weak, so that he can show you his strength. This is for our good, so learn to embrace the purpose of God, embrace your weakness, and learn to humbly rely on him. And as we do so, you’ll be amazed as you see the hand of God at work to give grace and to answer your prayers.
And God continued to work. Verses 23–25 say that the majority of the Midianite army died that night, but several thousand fled south and east (map) toward the Jordan. So Gideon rallied several tribes, and they chased after the Midianites and fulfilled God’s justice against them.
Folks, we serve a powerful God, and Jonathan got it right when he said, “Nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Sam 14:6). But of course, there are still a lot of Midianites left, and so Gideon continues to pursue, but sadly in chapter 8 we see a very different kind of weakness in Gideon and in Israel, which teaches us…
III. Our weakness highlights God’s grace (8:1–21).
You would think after all that God had done that Israel would be all rainbows and cupcakes, but sadly, the wickedness of their hearts quickly rises to the surface, and this begins with…
The Pride of Ephraim (vv. 1–3): 7:24–25 said that when the Midianites began to flee, Gideon called on Ephraim to come out stop them from crossing the Jordan, which they did.
And you would think that the Ephraimites would just be happy that the Midianites are gone, but instead they revealed their sinful hearts. They are angry that Gideon didn’t originally call on them. They wanted the glory of victory and probably the spoils of war. And Gideon does an excellent job of playing peacemaker, but Ephraim’s response is a stark reminder that Israel is anything but a united, godly nation. Rather as the theme verse of Judges states, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Pride and selfishness drove a wedge between the tribes. And sadly this continues with…
The Selfishness of Succoth and Peniel (vv. 4–9). These verses pick up with Gideon’s chase after the initial battle. As you can see on the map, the Midianites fled south and some of them were able to get across the Jordan before the Ephraimites cut them off, so Gideon continues the chase.
But sadly Gideon’s demeanor takes a decidedly bad turn in this section. He goes from being a hesitant leader who ultimately took a courageous step of faith to becoming a power-hungry ruler with a vengeful, petty spirit.
The text doesn’t say specifically why Gideon’s spirit turned, but I believe God only wanted Gideon to chase the Midianites across the Jordan. Once they were headed home, Gideon should have let them go. But vv. 18–19 indicate that the 2 Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna had killed Gideon’s brothers, probably in cold blood before the battle. Gideon is angry and bitter, and he is going to make them pay even. As a result, he chases them across the Jordan on his tour of vengeance.
And after crossing the Jordan, vv. 4–5 say that Gideon and the 300 came to the town of Succoth, in the region of Gad. They’re exhausted from their 50-mile journey from the original battle site. And so Gideon asks Succoth to feed his men, which was a very reasonable request, considering how God had used them. But the elders of Succoth have the same self-serving, fragmented spirit as the Ephraimites, and they refuse to help their countrymen.
And Gideon does not respond with the same grace he showed the Ephraimites (v. 7). We don’t know for certain what exactly he was threatening here, but whatever it was it was a brutal form of torture that would probably end in death. It’s certainly not the response of a godly leader who is zealous to unite Israel around the Lord; rather this is the angry, insecure response of a power-hungry general.
Then they go on to Penuel and make the same request. And Penuel has the same self-serving response as Succoth. And again, Gideon threatens them with terror, not with grace. Sadly, these 6 verses give us a window into the terrible consequences of forsaking God’s Law. The tribes were no longer united under a biblical worldview and ethic; rather, they had grown selfish and fragmented, and Gideon is revealing his own worldly heart. But remarkably God continues to show grace.
The Grace of God (vv. 10–12): Gideon marches on with his 300 men until the catch up to the Midianites. Apparently, the Midianites were confident that Gideon would give up the pursuit, so v. 11 says they “felt secure” and didn’t leave any sort of rear defense. But there were still 15,000 of them, so from a human perspective Gideon had no business attacking them.
But he did, and God graciously overlooks Gideon’s thirst for vengeance and gives him another victory. Gideon scatters the Midianites, and he runs down Zebah and Zalmunna. But Gideon is not satisfied. He is full of pride and bitterness, and the story concludes with…
The Vengeance of Gideon (vv. 13–21): Gideon retraces his steps, and first he returns to Succoth. And he doesn’t show any of the grace that he had received; rather he tortures and probably kills the city’s 77 elders. And then he goes to Penuel. And again these are fellow Israelites, but he tears down their tower, which would have been a very important defense mechanism, and he kills all the men in the city. It was another brutal step lacking any of the grace God had shown to him.
And then he probably brought Zebah and Zalmunna back to his hometown where he kills them. This was probably justifiable considering that they murdered his brothers, but the tone of the text indicates that Gideon is not acting out of zeal for God and for righteousness but out of angry bitterness.
And that’s how the battle with the Midianites ends. And so we have in this account, a very strange mix of themes. We’ve seen beautiful displays of God’s power and grace, and we’ve also seen sobering reminders of human weakness, both physically and spiritually. And in the end it all serves to remind us that God is big and God is kind. And we need to trust him with our lives. If God was bigger than Midian, he is bigger than any challenge you will face. And if God could overcome Gideon’s lack of faith and later his vengeful bitterness, then he is also bigger than your sin and your spiritual weakness. Therefore, we need to trust the Lord with our problems and with our sin, and then we need to stay anchored to his perfect will as revealed in his Word. Like Gideon and the Israelites in Judges 8, we love to follow our passions, but our sin will always end in emptiness and pain, like it does in Judges 8. God’s way is best. So let’s commit to walk by faith in the security of God’s will.