When the Judges Ruled: Gideon—The Dependent Judge

The book of Judges gives us a history of the people of God in the time when there was no king in Israel and every man did that which was right in his own eyes. This sentiment made for fluctuating devotion to Jehovah, and when we are introduced to our title character, Gideon, we are intersecting this history at a point where idolatry had once again brought them under the disciplinary hand of God.  We find Israel living in fear, hiding themselves and their belongings in caves because of an enemy that had been oppressing them for seven years. In Judges 6-8 we are about to witness God’s using one man to deliver the entire nation. Our reading will focus on parallels with Christian experience, so a careful look should yield practical lessons concerning both individual and collective testimony.

The character of the enemy and the nature of the oppression tell us much about the seriousness of the situation. There are three parties named in this conglomerate of opposition (Jdg 6:3,33; 7:12). The first is Midian, a people who can trace their ancestry back to Abraham and Keturah, with a peculiar connection to Ishmael (Gen 37:26-28,36; Jdg 8:24). The very name of this nation means “strife” and gives us insight into the typology connected with their presence in the Scriptures. They were a conniving lot who, through wiles, deceived the children of Israel into compromise (Num 25:18) and were now oppressing them into poverty.

It is this strife that brings to mind the problem we find addressed in Philippians. Division and contention in the assembly were affecting their testimony and power in the gospel.

The second party was Amalek, descendants of Esau, the worldly, natural man born to Isaac and Rebekah. Amalek eventually formed a great nation that would be a thorn in the side of the people of Israel from generation to generation (Exo 17:16). The animosity can be traced from the first attack on the nation in the wilderness (Exo 17) through to the experience of Mordecai with Haman the Agagite in the time of Esther. Amalek is that picture of the flesh lusting against the spirit, never being eradicated, but subdued in battle using the resources God has given for the task, namely the Word of God and the Spirit of God.

In the Galatians list of “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:20), one stands out as particularly relevant in our study: strife. Where the flesh is in control, the principle of pride leading to contention (Pro 13:10) results in strife among the Lord’s people.

The third group in opposition to Israel was “the children of the East.” This term is first presented to us as Jacob arrives at the well in Haran on a journey back to his mother’s people (Gen 29:1). The family history can be traced back to Abraham’s call out of this area to follow Jehovah by faith “not knowing wither he went” (Heb 11:8). Combine this with the proximity to Shinar/Babel/Babylon and the symbolism is rich. The children of Israel were now being affected by the very thing from which they had been called out. This, of course, points us to the world of religious confusion that has sadly divided the Body of Christ into denominations and sects, practically dividing what God has positionally united.

The enemy was overwhelming and relentless. Israel was still sowing but the adversaries ensured they never reaped. The sheep they sought to shepherd were being lost; stolen oxen prevented work in the field, and they were being robbed of their burden-bearing animals. What weakness we see when assemblies of God’s people are affected by division and contention. They may sow in the gospel and see little fruit; they attempt to keep the sheep safe in the fold only to see them leave. They still reach out into the community but with compromised testimony, and many good brethren who once led the Lord’s people are now discouraged under the weight of such responsibility. Midian paralyzes Christian testimony.

Now we come to the man whom the Lord chose to be the leader of this deliverance, Gideon, the dependent judge who will move in accordance with and in subjection to the leading of God. Many aspects of his life project light on the scriptural qualifications for and practical qualities of spiritual leaders.

First, the grapeless winepress had become a secret place for Gideon to get food for himself and others; he spent time alone threshing wheat so the people could be fed. Surely this corresponds to the necessity of leaders being able to feed themselves and others with the Word of God. Time spent in secret getting food will be essential first for his own strength and then for that of those he will lead.

Second, his honesty is refreshing as he assesses Israel’s condition realistically. Once they were the victorious nation of the Exodus but now they had been brought into bondage. Surely we need honest leaders who are willing to face reality and confess failure before they can guide in times of discouragement. There is no profit in recalling past success while ignoring current weakness.

Third, his humility was the key. “I am the least” (Jdg 6:15) is a sincere expression of his keen awareness of his own weakness. He does not show the pride that leads to self-promotion, self-exaltation and self-reliance. He realizes that his strength will be found in God or he will have no strength at all, making every effort to make the Lord’s will paramount. The absence of humility in assembly leadership should be a concern for all, as dependence upon God can then become secondary to man’s reasoning.

Let us look at the four ways God gave guidance and assurance to the honest, humble and dependent judge.

1. Sacrifice at Jehovah-shalom: Gideon wanted a sign that it really was the Lord speaking to him, and he received so much more. As he offered the goat along with a meal and drink offering, the Lord not only affirmed His presence there but also gave Gideon wonderful assurance of his acceptance with Jehovah. Not only did the Lord consume the sacrifice but He gave Gideon His word: “Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die” (Jdg 6:23). He is a man confident of his acceptance with the Lord, upon whom he will now rely for strength and protection in overthrowing the altar of Baal.

2. Gideon’s fleece: Was Gideon faithless or cautious? Was he unable to trust God or was he afraid to make a mistake? Perhaps both, yet we are happy to see that Gideon is still looking to the Lord in dependence, even after his previous accomplishment. We also should be seeking the Lord’s mind every day and in every aspect of life. While the practical aspects of the fleece are evident, we should not overlook the dew that became water in a bowl. As dew may speak of the Spirit of God and standing water reminds us of the Word of God, is it not fitting to see that the water is involved in the assurance he received? While we can ask the Lord to arrange circumstances for direction, let us never forget that the God-breathed Word is always the standard for guidance, and so it will be in bringing the Lord’s people together after strife.

3. Lapping water: This lesson could be seen in different ways, depending on what significance we place on the drinking positions. Some have seen the men chosen by the Lord as those who drank from a lower position, focusing on their humility. But could it be that in the unguarded moment of thirst the men were disclosing their religious past? This type of kneeling could be connected with the very Baal worship that led to their oppression,[1] and men desiring to be effective for God will have a holy hatred for that which draws the Lord’s people apart. Only men separated unto Jehovah can lead His people toward united harmony.

4. Barley cake vision: If we learn anything from this final affirmation of the Lord’s will, it is that God wants to totally remove fear from the dependent man. “If thou fear” (Jdg 7:10) indicates trepidation. Gideon was not yet settled, so the Lord, in patience, gives him assurance again. The humble barley cake having the power to overthrow the tent provides a tidy summary of the meager man of Manasseh who, in the power of Jehovah, will unite the Lord’s people in deliverance from Midian.  God’s power was magnified in man’s weakness (2Co 12:9).

How fitting it is to see the broken clay vessel, torch and the trumpet used in this battle. The light and the trumpet are the only weapons God uses in this warfare, but they are only effective if used together and even then, the earthen vessel must be broken. The light and trumpet both point to the Word of God. The trumpet is the declaration of the Word and the torch is the testimony produced in the believer as a result of the Word. The humble dependent Christian who not only declares the Word of God but has a life of testimony to its power is one who can be used to bring the Lord’s people together and rid the company of Midianite strife.

[1] Idolaters were accustomed to pray kneeling before their idols. On this account, kneeling, even as a mere bodily posture, had become unpopular and ominous in Israel, and was avoided as much as possible.

Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Cassel, P., & Steenstra, P. H. (2008). A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Judges (p. 123). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.