Because of Israel’s idolatry, God sent the Midianites to oppress Israel. When Israel called to the Lord for salvation, the Lord chose weak Gideon to lead Israel against Midian. Once the Lord proved his power to Gideon, Gideon moved his 32,000 men close to the Midianite camp. Though Gideon’s men were outnumbered four to one, God told Gideon that he wanted to defeat Midian with fewer men so that Israel would recognize that God gave them the victory. God sent home all but 300 of Gideon’s men. Though Gideon’s men were now massively outnumbered, God offered Gideon another sign to rekindle his boldness to fight against Midian. Gideon heard a Midianite soldier tell his comrade a dream about a cake of barley bread knocking a tent over. Gideon was that small barley cake that would conquer the gigantic camp of Midian through the power of the Lord. The sign caused Gideon to return to the camp and lead his men with full faith in the Lord.
Gideon split his 300 men into three companies of 100 men each. Instead of arming the men with the typical necessities for war, Gideon armed each of his men with a trumpet, a jar, and a torch. Can you imagine attacking 135,000 enemy soldiers with such simple instruments? Gideon’s men broke off into their three companies and completely surrounded the Midianite camp. The men blew their trumpets, broke their jars, held up their torches and cried out, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” Instead of charging against the Midianites, Gideon’s men stood firm in their places. When the Midianite soldiers woke up to this noise, pandemonium broke out in their camp. Judges 7:22 says that the Lord set every man’s sword against his comrade. The Midianite soldiers were so confused that they began killing one another. The Midianites self-destructed as Gideon’s men stood their ground. The slaughter was massive, but the kings and princes escaped with some of their men.
As the remaining Midianites fled, Gideon called the northern tribes to pursue Midian. Naphtali, Asher, Manasseh, and Ephraim responded. Ephraim successfully captured and beheaded two princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb. The Midianite army was now reduced to 15,000 men led by the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. When the Midianites least expected an attack, Gideon’s men attacked and threw the Midianite camp into a panic. Though Zebah and Zalmunna fled, Gideon captured and beheaded them. The seven years of crippling oppression ended.
The Lord conquered despite Gideon’s inadequacies. Through simple men and simple instruments for war, the Lord fulfilled his promise to deliver Gideon and Israel. The Lord’s victory for Israel that day caused Israel to have rest from war for the next 40 years. Though the Lord displayed his massive power and faithfulness in this victory, I want us to dig deeper into the details of this story. When we do, we will find that not all in Israel handled victory appropriately. Some men had intentions for this victory outside of the Lord’s intentions. Studying faulty perspectives in this victory will help us see the Lord’s victory in our own lives from a better perspective.
Ephraim: It’s Not About You (8:1-3)
After the initial slaughter when Gideon called the northern tribes to assist, Ephraim successfully captured and beheaded two princes of Midian. Ephraim played a key role in the defeat of Midian. However, when Ephraim should have praised God for using them to carry out his deliverance, they complained with selfishness. The powerful men of Ephraim came to Gideon with anger. “You intentionally left us out of the initial attack on Midian! How could you attack Midian without us?” Though Gideon recognized that Ephraim’s anger was unwarranted, Gideon diffused the disagreement by praising them. Judges 8:2–3 NLT, “What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t even the leftover grapes of Ephraim’s harvest better than the entire crop of my little clan of Abiezer? God gave you victory over Oreb and Zeeb, the commanders of the Midianite army. What have I accomplished compared to that?”Once Ephraim heard Gideon’s praise, they dropped their accusation.
Though Gideon was able to diffuse this situation, Ephraim’s selfish accusation in the midst of war is disconcerting. Defeating Midian was supposed to be about God’s deliverance. Defeating Midian was Israel’s opportunity to put away their idolatry, live in peace, and become the holy nation God intended them to be. Instead of rejoicing with Israel and glorifying the Lord’s deliverance, Ephraim was immediately concerned with themselves. They perceived that they weren’t important enough in the battle. They were desirous of greater glory and importance.
While Ephraim played an important part in victory, their assessment was correct. They perceived that overthrowing Midian wasn’t about them, and they were right. Overthrowing Midian was not about Ephraim’s particular hand in victory at all. We can see a contrast between Ephraim’s current attitude, and Gideon’s attitude from the beginning. When the Lord first asked Gideon to deliver Israel, Gideon refused. Gideon didn’t feel important enough or strong enough to lead Israel. Gideon eventually learned that his lack of strength and importance made him perfect to lead Israel. There is a reason why God called little Gideon from the little clan of Abiezer and not an Ephraimite. Ephraim desired importance. Ephraim believed victory and success needed to be more about them.
As we pray for the Lord to accomplish a great work for his name through us, a correct perspective cannot be overemphasized. Serving other people and helping others grow near to our Lord is not about us. A congregation’s growth in numbers and strength is not about the part played by the congregation or its individuals. When we serve and teach, it is not about us receiving recognition of feeling good about ourselves. It’s not about having a position of glory where people will honor us for what we have done. It’s about God’s glory. It is about God drawing souls to himself. This is why Jesus tells us to perform our good works in secret. It’s not about our work; it’s about God doing a work through us for his name. Adopting this perspective can help us get more excited about serving and teaching others. When we believe these things are about us, we will only serve and teach to feel good about ourselves. But when we see that our service and evangelism is for God’s name, our good works will be selfless. Then the Lord’s true purposes for our service will be accomplished and he will be glorified. See what God can use you for this week. Talk to God about changing your desires from a desire to glorify self to a desire to make service about him and his purposes. Tell a friend about the gospel not because it’s about you obeying a commandment, but because you are excited about God’s victory. Help a brother or sister in need not because you want other people to notice you, but because you love Christ’s church.
Succoth and Penuel: Harsh Discipline (8:4-9; 13-17)
Gideon’s army of 300 had one final crew of Midianites to destroy – the 15,000 men led by kings Zebah and Zalmunna. As Gideon was in hot pursuit of Zebah and Zalmunna, his men grew weary. Gideon and his men stopped in Succoth, a city within Manasseh, and asked for bread so they could continue their pursuit. The officials of Succoth responded negatively, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” The officials of Succoth feared that Midian would punish them for helping Gideon if Gideon’s pursuit was unsuccessful. Gideon vowed to flail their flesh with thorns when he returned in victory over Midian. Gideon’s men continued to Penuel and also requested bread from them. Penuel declined to give Gideon bread for the same reason. Gideon vowed to return to destroy the tower that stood in their city because of their refusal to help his hungry army. Once Gideon captured Zebah and Zalmunna, he returned to the cities and punished them as he had promised. He thrashed the officials of Succoth with thorns, destroyed the tower of Penuel, and killed the men of the city.
Succoth and Penuel did a terrible thing by not offering food to their Israelite brothers. The officials of those cities showed a lack of love, a lack of faith, and could have seriously hurt Gideon’s pursuit. Succoth and Penuel deserved punishment. But think about this from Succoth and Penuel’s perspective. Gideon isn’t their king. As far as they know, Gideon is hardly a leader. Why should they risk helping him? If they help Gideon’s men, their entire city would be in danger of Midianite retaliation. This decision could get their wives and children killed. Would Gideon have reacted any differently if he were in their shoes just days before? When Gideon was first called he had zero faith in the Lord’s deliverance. Remember, Judges 6:13, “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? … The Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” Would Gideon have provided assistance to an army of 300 who claimed to be able to overthrow the 15,000 men that followed the kings of Midian?
Though Succoth and Penuel fully deserved punishment, we can see how rash Gideon’s action was. Gideon killed many of these men. Gideon’s faith wasn’t any stronger than these men’s faith a few days earlier. What gave Gideon the right to punish these cities and kill these men? I wonder if Gideon truly saw the Lord’s victory through his small army in the proper light. Had Gideon forgotten how weak his own faith was a few days earlier? Had Gideon forgotten how patient the Lord was with him when he was not bold enough to fight?
As we strive to grow in our dedication to serve the Lord, we need to be cautious of our pride. The moment we forget we are nobodies who the Lord uses for his purposes is the moment we will lose our gentleness with those who do not have our faith. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 are important. Matthew 5:5-7, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If Gideon would have come to these men with a meek and merciful attitude after this incident, he could have raised them up and emboldened them from their previous faithlessness. Instead, many of these men were now dead. When we experience growth it is easy to become prideful. If we will remember that the Lord’s mercy is the only reason we have grown, this prideful attitude can be prevented. Instead, we will find a passion to help others experience the same transformation and growth. Press on for greater faith in your own life, but consider those in your family, congregation, and workplace as opportunities to spread your growth. Have compassion instead of harshness when their weaknesses are exposed. God helps us grow so we can raise others up, not hurt them in their weak faith.
The Spoils: Idolatry (8:22-35)
Once Midian was defeated, the people of Israel came to Gideon with a request. You have saved us from the oppression of Midian, so we want you to rule over us. Israel wanted to make Gideon king. This is exactly what the Lord tried to prevent. The Lord reduced Gideon’s numbers in Judges 7 so Israel wouldn’t think they saved themselves. Yet, Israel believed Gideon’s leadership had saved them. Gideon quickly refused this offer and told them that their only king would be the Lord.
But this was not the end of the conversation. Gideon made a request. The Midianites wore golden earrings that Israel had taken as spoils of war. Gideon asked Israel to give the earrings to him. The men of Israel agreed to give Gideon the earrings. They gathered over 40 pounds of gold. Sadly, Gideon took this gold and made an ephod out of the gold. It is tough to know exactly what is being spoken of here. “Ephod” could literally refer to a golden garment, or it could refer to the golden image with a garment on it. The result of making this ephod tells us all we need to know. When Gideon set up the ephod, Judges tells us it became a snare to Gideon, his family, and all Israel. Israel ended up worshipping it as an idol. It is possible that they worshipped it as a remembrance of their deliverance from Midian. When the Lord delivered Israel and blessed them with spoils from war, they responded by using their spoils for idol worship. Even worse, once Gideon died, the people of Israel returned to worshipping Baal.
This story parallels Israel’s golden calf incident in Exodus 32. Israel cried out for the Lord’s salvation from Egyptian slavery. The Lord delivered them and caused all Egypt to give them gold and rich gifts beyond measure. When Israel reached Sinai, they complained about Moses being gone too long and asked Aaron to make them gods. Aaron asked the people to give him all their golden earrings. Aaron used the gold to make a calf. The people responded, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When the Lord met Israel’s need, Israel used the Lord’s provision for their idol worship. Judah is condemned for similar actions in Ezekiel 16.
Using the spoils of war given by the Lord for idolatry is a sad, but common theme for Israel. The Lord had originally punished Israel for trusting in other idols. When Israel cried out for the Lord to save them from their punishment, the Lord responded with a generous salvation. As soon as the Lord blessed them with gold, they began trusting in their idols once again. This terrible irony would be amusing if it weren’t such a sad indication of a frequent weakness in human hearts. Just as Satan can use the Lord’s victory and our growth for evil, he can also use the Lord’s blessings for evil. Gideon saw mighty acts of the Lord and still had idolatry in his heart – we certainly aren’t excluded from this danger.
We must always cry to the Lord for salvation. He desires to be our firm rock. But we must be cautious to watch our steps when the Lord does deliver and bless us. Will we turn back to our old sins? Will we use the blessings of the Lord to support our idolatry? When our sin or others’ sins harm us, we should ask for the Lord’s forgiveness and healing. When we experience the Lord’s forgiveness and healing, will we abuse our newfound peace to again seek our joy from the world? Or will we use the opportunity to give the Lord our whole hearts? Economic difficulty or poor health may cripple us at times. Our own strength and wisdom is not the answer. We must ask for the Lord’s deliverance. When the Lord heals us or restores our way of living, will we use our health and time to glorify the Lord? Will we use our God given resources for the good of others and the Lord’s work? Or will we devote our God given health and resources to pursue worldly pleasures? How easily our riches turn us away from loving God fully! Israel constantly fell into this trap and we must see the great danger in our own lives. Now is the time to use the Lord’s deliverance in our lives as an opportunity to see how blessed it is to trust only in the Lord. Why cyclically return to the same idols and continue to live in disappointment? True security and joy await us if we will strengthen our commitment and trust in the Lord.
Though the Lord may give us victory, growth, and blessings, Satan is always ready to use any opportunity to hurt the work of the Lord. When the Lord accomplishes a great work through you or through this congregation, remember that it is about the glorification of the Lord’s name. When the Lord shows us great patience and causes our faith to grow, use it as an opportunity to spread your growth to others. In patience, teach them how to overcome their weakness. When we cry out to the Lord for help and deliverance in any situation, use the blessings he gives as an opportunity to dedicate more of your heart to him.