There he stood, waiting, watching, and wondering, not realizing that this act would make history. "Would the fleece be wet?" Gideon wondered. "Is it really God's will?" This singular incident is what is most often remembered about this particular judge of Israel. However, Stephen's study of the life of Gideon reveals that this story is about much more than a fleece.
“SHOOTING AT THE SAINTS”
I read, a few years ago, of the British and the French, who were skirmishing. It was in the early 1700’s, I believe Louis the XIV was reigning as France’s monarch. And an English captain, whose ship lay off the coast of France awaiting the call to war, didn’t want to waist his time. So he ordered that his men practice their target shooting, that is, with their canons, at a nearby castle that was, in typical French fashion, adorned around the top with plaster reliefs of patron saints. These statues were imposing, as they were formed along the top. And so these men began practicing and spent their hours, in the harbor, sharpening their aim. It was interesting, what I read, because, when they were called to war, it was called so suddenly that they were unable to refurbish the ship. They had to set sail immediately. And they lost at sea, not because they were out-manned or out-maneuvered, they lost because they ran out of ammunition. They had spent far too much of it shooting at the saints.
I believe one of the common problems with us facing the real enemy in the real battle, is not that we are out-maneuvered or out-manned, it is because we spend far too much time and way too much ammunition shooting at the saints. This is not a new problem, that is, believer getting along with believer. You read, in the New Testament, the church in Corinth was struggling between one believer suing another believer in court. You read, the Ephesian church being begged, by Paul, to pursue unity, doctrinal unity. You read of the church in Philippi, was rather interesting because there, in that church, were two women who were so at odds with one another that it had torn the church. Paul even gave their names as he compelled them to get along. One was named Euodia, someone renamed her Odious, and Syntyche, someone renamed her Soontouchy, I don’t know how accurate that is. But I think of the Galatian church, as well, that had developed this reputation for intense in-house fighting and they were struggling in the real war because of it.
Divisiveness, over anything and everything, is a contemporary problem today and it is something that you and I battle with. Either we are part of the problem or we are the target. And I can tell you, up front, it is very thrilling to be able to preach a message from a passage of the Old Testament that stresses unity, and believe that we are unified in our objective and our purpose. But as we study the books of the Bible and as issues are raised, perhaps God is warning us of what can happen, what may be happening that I am not aware of.
We’re about to observe our study, whose name is Gideon, would you take your Bibles and turn to chapter 7, face the most devastating problems he has yet to face. Now earlier, in my study of this book, since it was my first time around the block in the book of Judges, I felt like Gideon’s greatest struggle would be against the Midianites. They were the real enemy. They would cause the most trouble. But, as I later studied and this past week went into the next few chapters, it became apparent to me that his most difficult moments, in following the will of God, came from what he had to face with his own people, his own Hebrew brothers and sisters. They should have been encouraging him but instead, discouraged him.
The last part of Judges, chapter 7, is really the mopping up expedition. Gideon’s 300, as you remember from last Lord’s day, had stood on the hillside and had waved some torches, and shouted a little bit, and blown their trumpets. And they routed the enemy, and 120,000 of them took each other lives. Gideon never raised a sword. Fifteen thousand Midianites, however, escaped. They were on camels and so, as he tries to catch them and finish the job, speed is of the essence. And so he radios ahead, that is, with one of his own men, and he asks the Ephraimites to do something for him.
Look at chapter 7, verse 24, “And Gideon sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, ‘Come down against Midian and take the waters before them,’” – that is, cut them off at the pass – “‘as far as Beth-barah and the Jordan.’ So all the men of Ephraim were summoned, and they took the waters as far as Beth-barah and the Jordan. And they captured the two leaders of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb,” – their names, a literal rending, would be “raven” and “wolf,” they must have been two unusual soldiers – “and they killed” – the “raven” – “at the rock” – “raven” – “and they killed” – the “wolf” at the wine press named after him – “while they pursued Midian; and they brought the heads of” – “raven” and the “wolf” – “to Gideon from across the Jordan.” Kind of a gruesome thing that occurred, typical in that fashion in that day, proof that they had indeed conquered.
Now what I would expect, if I didn’t read any further, would be the tribe of Ephraim bringing proof of their victory to Gideon, they haven’t seen him now for awhile, they’ve heard the story of Gideon’s 300 and, what I would expect is, an awful lot of back slapping and, “Hallelujah!” and congratulations and “Isn’t God wonderful?” But what happens instead, look at chapter 8, verse 1, “Then the men of Ephraim” – when they meet up with him – “said to him, ‘What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?’ And they contended with him vigorously.” Fascinating.
Let’s back up and try to understand why. I believe it’s because Ephraim had a problem that had developed over the years. And, at this point in their history, they are the most prominent tribe. They claim men from their tribe like Joshua. Ephraim was the son of Joseph and they were proud of that heritage, as well. We find them here, the most prominent, the largest tribe, who have within their borders, by the way, the two religious centers: the tabernacle is housed in Shiloh, in their territory, and Bethel is also within their domain. So they’re used to people coming from all over the promised land to them. They have, evidently, grown proud of the fact that they’re the tribe who is most prominent.
The key words, in understanding how they treated Gideon, are the words “contended,” which has to do, it could be translated in terms of a “sharp, public conflict,” and the word “vigorously,” which means “violently,” they literally jumped all over Gideon’s back. “Why in the world would you leave us out? We are Ephraimites. We are the most prominent. And you would dare go to battle without checking with us first?” Nehemiah faced a similar struggle with his enemies, who saw him rebuilding the wall and they weren’t part of the plan. And so they said, “Oh, Nehemiah, the only reason you want to rebuild the wall is so that you can be the king.” Perhaps they said to Gideon, “The only reason you took 300 is so that you could get all the glory, not have to share the loot with many people, so your name would be known as “The Baal Contender.”
Now the way that Gideon handles his critics, here, is incredible to me because, if I tried to slip into his sandals, I would have responded in exact opposition to what he did. But I want to give you, for your notes, three ways that he handles his critics. Number one, he handles them with tact. Tact is the ability to take into account the feelings of another person and respond in relation to how THEY feel.
I was reading a book by Swindoll, recently, and he retold an old story, that is rather humorous, about the husband who lacked tact. I thought I’d share it with you. This husband, his wife was going on a European tour. And the day that she left, flying to New York first, their cat died. And she called him from New York, the next day when she had arrived, and she said, “Honey, how is everything going?” And he just bluntly came out and said, “The cat is dead.” And she was shocked and chided him through tears, “You should have been more tactful.” And he said, “Well what should I have said?” Husbands say that, “What should I have done?” And she said, “Well you could have told me in degrees, little by little. Like, when I arrived in New York, you could have said, ‘Honey, the cat is on the roof.’ And then, when I arrived the next day in Paris, you could have said, ‘Honey, the cat fell off the roof.’ And then, the following day, from Rome, you could have told me, ‘Sweetheart, the cat is at the veterinary hospital and it doesn’t look too good.’ And then, finally, a few days later, you could tell me, ‘I’m sorry but the cat died.’” And he thought, he said, “You are so right and I apologize for my tactlessness.” And they kind of made things right there. And then they were talking and, a little later in the conversation, she says, “Oh, by the way, how is my mother doing?” And he said, after a long pause, “Well, she’s on the roof.” A classic illustration of what tact is not! Tact is the ability to understand how someone might feel and respond in that way. Somebody once wrote it this way, “Tact is making someone feel at home when you really wish they were.”
Whether right or wrong, in fact, Gideon, here in this passage, has every right to nail Ephraim’s hide to the wall. “You come to me complaining about the fact that you didn’t get an invitation to fight? God chose me. He called me. He empowered our little force. We didn’t plan it that way. We wanted 32,000 men.” But instead, look at what he says to them, it’s incredible. Chapter 8, verse 2, “But he said to them, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you?’” And I’m saying, “Come on, Gideon, these windbags didn’t do a thing. You put your neck on the line, with 300 men, and you’re saying, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you?’ There’s no telling how many soldiers they had in capturing ‘raven’ and the ‘wolf.’” Is Gideon just flattering here? No. He’s, literally, seeing it from their perspective, which is very tactful. And, from their perspective, Gideon hadn’t done anything. He had never raised a sword. He had never involved himself in hand-to-hand combat. All he had done was shouted and waved a torch, from their perspective. They were the ones that got involved in hand-to-hand combat and captured the “raven” and the “wolf.” So Gideon, seeing it from their point of view, responds very tactfully.
And, along that same line, he also responds, secondly, very humbly, that is, he responds with humility. He’s big enough to highlight their achievement. Look at verse 3, “God has given the leaders of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb into your hands; and what was I able to do in comparison with you?” The truth is, Gideon had not fought hand-to-hand and he, very humbly, steps down, which is very difficult to do, especially when you’ve just done what Gideon did, and look at them and, in a sense, consider them greater than yourself, which is, by the way, a New Testament command given to you and me. Gideon understands that, at this point, when disharmony could split the tribes into a bitter dispute, he recognizes the fact that collective harmony is much more important than collecting honor.
The only correction that he makes is found in this third item I’ll tell you, he handles them with focus. He implicitly states, in the text, that God is in control. In fact, the only correction that Gideon makes to these men is the fact that they seem to be leaving God out. He isn’t troubled with the fact that HE isn’t getting the credit, he seems to be troubled with the fact that GOD isn’t getting any credit. Because look at verse 1 again, they said, “Why didn’t you call us” – “when YOU went to fight against Midian?” And Gideon is saying, “Uh-uh, you’re missing it.” And, in verse 3, he sort of subtly implies, as he says, “GOD has given the leaders of Midian, . . . into your hands”. He’s sort of reminding them, “Listen, you didn’t get the ‘raven,’ you didn’t get the ‘wolf,’ and I didn’t do what I did. I submitted to God but God through me, God through you, accomplished what He did.” You see, you study the lives of men and women in the Old Testament, who are godly, and you will discover the reoccurring common ingredient that they are all too anxious to give God the credit for whatever has happened.
Now for those who criticize, we find, here, an illustration. Let’s pull apart what their complaint is really revealing about themselves. Number one, they are more interested in their own involvement than in God’s intentions. The Ephraimites were political Christians, if you would. They were the right people to be seen with and they would make sure that they were always involved in the right things. And, by the way, routing the Midianites would have looked wonderful on their tribal resume. And they’re a little upset that they don’t have that feather in their cap. It isn’t what God is interested in, it’s what I can do to develop my own reputation.
Secondly, they were more concerned about receiving glory, obviously, than in giving glory. At this point, I would expect them to come across with the two defeated kings and slap Gideon on the back and say, “Isn’t God wonderful? Let’s share stories of what God has recently done.” No. They are more interested in receiving it than in giving it. In fact, they are acting like very spoiled little children who haven’t gotten the present that they wanted to get.
I was in the grocery store a couple of days ago, which is one of the least favorite places to me on God’s green earth. I know that some of you men go to the grocery store with your wives. That’s wonderful. I know that some of you even do the shopping. I’ve heard stories that you do the grocery shopping. And that’s great, I admire that in you. I never want to be like you but I admire that. But, you know, every once in awhile, I’ll go to the grocery store for that gallon of milk or that loaf of bread. Typical that I arrive at the same time to that lane where you check your stuff out and you pay for it, there’s a gal with a little kid in the cart and the kid is throwing a fit. You’ve been to those check-out lanes, you guys, you know, they’re a study all in themselves. You get into that lane and, to your left, the average girl’s height is about five feet six inches or seven inches, and right at eye level are all these tabloids with the headlines. And I usually get a chuckle. I’m in there reading them myself. I’m standing there, in the lane the other day, and it’s the latest Elvis sightings and a woman abducted by an alien spaceship. Not that I don’t believe this, by the way, if you buy these things. There’s a lot behind them, I’m sure! But, at any rate, to the right, you know what’s on the right side? Candy, row after row of candy. And, you know, the bottom shelf is all the way down to the ground. No adult can comfortably reach down that low but a kid can. And the top shelf is no higher than a two-year-old’s ability, from their cart seat, to reach up and grab. And that’s what this kid was after. And I was just standing there, between the Elvis sightings and this Mom, just glad I was in and out of there, bless her heart. He was pitching a fit. You know what’s really bad? It’s when an adult pitches a fit because they don’t get their way. Now they don’t usually say, “Wah,” and stamp their feet. But it may be a power play. It may be manipulation. It may be criticism. What they are, in effect, saying is, “I’d like to be a little more preeminent here. You left me out.” That’s what’s happening here.
Now, if you think I’m reading them wrong, turn over to chapter 12, verse 1, because the same thing happens again and it, literally, is mind blowing. Chapter 12, verse 1, “Then the men of Ephraim were summoned, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you cross over to fight against the sons of Ammon without calling us to go with you? We will burn your house down on you.’” Oh my goodness! There they are, “You left us out. We’re going to burn your house down.” How immature. They had a problem. The Ephraimites, you’d better include them or you’re going to feel the wrath. You’d better give them the preeminent spot or they’re going to make trouble.
Problem number two is very similar but just a tad different. It’s the problem of disunity and notice how Gideon handles it. Let’s read on in chapter 8, let’s go to verse 4, “Then Gideon and the 300 men who were with him came to the Jordan and crossed over,” – note these words – “weary yet pursuing.” If you’ve ever needed a theme verse for following God, as a housewife, as a businessman or woman, or wherever you’re serving the Lord, you’re worn out, here it is, “weary yet pursuing.” The next verse, verse 5, “And he said to the men of Succoth, ‘Please give loaves of bread to the people who are following me, for they are weary, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.’ And the leaders of Succoth said, ‘Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hands, that we should give bread to your army?’” The phrase, “are the hands,” may allude to the practice of dismembering those whom you’ve conquered as proof that you’ve won. Many times they dismembered the hands as proof. We’re not sure, that may be what they mean there. Verse 7, “And Gideon said, ‘All right, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, then I will thrash your bodies with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers.’” That is, “You will be disciplined,” as the judge. “And he went up from there to Penuel, and spoke similarly to them; and the men of Penuel answered him just as the men of Succoth had answered. So he spoke also to the men of Penuel, saying, ‘When I return safely, I will tear down this tower.’” That’s a clue. What’s happening here? Succoth and Penuel are western tribes located on the other side of the Jordan river. What they are facing is fear. They probably also enjoy a brisk trade with the Midianites as they come through their region into their annual pillaging of the Canaanite lands. But they also face this, if Gideon loses and the Midianites discover that these western tribes have helped Gideon, who do you think is going to be the first that they attack with revenge in their minds? These two tribes. What these two tribes are, basically, struggling with is their choice of enemies. They’ve chosen wrongly. Because they have, basically, said, “We would rather have God as our enemy. We would rather have the people of Israel at odds with us than the enemies of God.” Fear makes us do strange things. The two tribes here are struggling then with, Ephraim with it’s pride or with it’s status, and these two tribes with their security, with their fear.
How does Gideon handle their fear and the disunity it causes? I want to give you a couple of ways. Number one, Gideon did not allow it to distract. Look at verse 10, chapter 8, “Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and their armies with them, about 15,000 men, all who were left of the entire army of the sons of the east; for the fallen were 120,000 swordsmen.” – they took on each other and lost – “And Gideon went up by the way of those who lived in tents on the east of Nobah and Jogbehah, and attacked the camp, when the camp was unsuspecting.” In other words, the Midianites thought, “Oh, Gideon can’t come this far.” They’ve had camels to their aid. “He can’t reach us here. We’re safe.” And it’s at that point that Gideon arrives and attacks. He is not, then, distracted by those who, in fear, want to fight in his walk of faith. He doesn’t allow their insecurity in God’s promises and in God’s power to paralyze his own walk. And, ladies and gentlemen, you will, at times, perhaps be referred to as a person who is doing something that cannot be done. Someone who should be encouraging you might say, “You can’t do that.” You lack knowledge or experience or whatever. Basically, what we find here, are these tribes taunting Gideon. That goes beyond their fear. It actually states that they were saying, “Gideon, there’s no way in the world you’ll ever do it.” They had become as Gideon’s enemies. But he never allowed it to distract him.
Secondly, Gideon doesn’t allow it to develop within the nation. Look at verse 15, “And he came to the men of Succoth and said, ‘Behold’” – or “Look here” – “Zebah and Zalmunna, concerning whom you taunted me, saying, ‘Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your men who are weary?’” – “You taunted me. You said I couldn’t do it.” – “And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and he disciplined the me of Succoth with them. And he tore down the tower of Penuel”. It’s interesting because the tower is the position of security, it’s their safety, it’s where they run when the enemy attacks. He says, “You guys have been depending on this tower WAY too long. We’re going to take it away. You depend on God.” So Gideon, here, returns then as God’s judge to discipline. He takes the lives of the elders because they had become as the Midianites. They refused to follow God and God, in effect, through Gideon, says, “Disunity cannot be tolerated in the land of Canaan.” And you know something, it cannot be tolerated, as well, in the church.
I don’t want to torture the text, here, in making applications that don’t fit. And although I see vast differences of Israel and the church, there are some over-arcing truths that translate themselves right into the twentieth century church. Let me give you a couple of them. Number one, God never intended his people to function disunified. When I talk of disunity, I’m not talking about some method or some practice, I’m talking about the essentials, the doctrines that we, as this church, hold dear. Inerrancy is not up for grabs. The literal interpretation of scripture is not being voted on. If we ever become disunified on the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, or a literal resurrection of Christ from the grave, we are, in effect, saying, “God, You might as well just write right over the door, ‘Ichabod,’ because we can’t function with that.” In fact, Romans, chapter 16, verse 17, let me quote to you these words, “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances” – how? – “contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.” That, literally, means to avoid them, to step around them. A disunified church is a disabled church. Our unity comes from our allegiances to this book and to our Lord, the Shepherd, who wrote it. Now Satan doesn’t care what issue it is. He just cares that we’re divided.
Warning number two goes a little bit further than that one. Let me give it to you. God never allows His people to minister effectively, divided. Revelation, chapter 2, tells the story of a church that is divided in it’s objective. They have lost their first love, their first priority to honor and glorify God and to reach their world. They had forgotten that. And, although they were seemingly existing, they had ceased to minister effectively. And Jesus Christ’s words are powerful there, as He says to this church, “Repent, or else I will come and take the lampstand away.” What is He saying? “You can go on functioning but I’m going to take away your potential for effectiveness. I’m going to take away your testimony. I’m going to take away your light, your saltiness.”
Let me make two further applications here so we don’t misunderstand. Number one, it’s possible for a church to exist without experiencing effectiveness. Secondly, it is possible for a church to function physically without experiencing fulfillment spiritually. In other words, it’s possible for Colonial Baptist Church to have its policies, its programs, its officers, its leaders, laity, its worship, its singing, its music, and all of those things and, all the while, somebody is missing, and His name is God. That’s possible. But a unified church is the most powerful force on planet earth. And you and I were left here, in this century, at this moment, in this city to be His tool in reaching His world.
I love Acts, chapter 17, verse 6, where the city officials in Thessalonica said of the church leaders and the church testimony, they said, “These that have turned the world upside down”. That could be rendered, “These that have upset the whole world.” Who are we to upset? Each other? No. The world – to turn it upside down for His cause. And there is no greater need in this church, for the development of unity, than now. In six or seven weeks, we’re going to leave this school. We’re going to leave the folding chairs, those extremely comfortable black chairs, the brown chairs whose backs fall out. We’re going to leave the classroom where the teachers push the tables back against the wall and make room for kids. The nursery that takes desks and shoves them against the wall and sets out the equipment. We’re going to leave things and we’re going to look back and recognize, more than ever, that these things created and developed unity more than anything else. When we get over into that facility, with its permanence, it will be so easy for us to inscripture some method, to make inspired some practice, to refuse to change or develop, to take the next step in faith. It will be much more difficult than it is now because we know everything about us is temporary. If there is ever a call for unity and an awareness of fear, of pride, status, security, as the enemies that they are, it is Judges, chapter 8.
An issue of the “National Geographic” had, within its issue, a photograph of the fossilized remains of two saber-tooth cats, that have long been extinct. It’s interesting because, evidently, these cats had been involved in a war between themselves. And let me just quote, for you, what the article said, “One of the cats had bitten deep into the leg bone of the other, a thrust that trapped both in a common fate. The cause of the death of the two cats was clear.” In other words, they were unable to disentangle from their conflict and both died. Let me read you the words of the apostle Paul, “But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.”
Let’s search our hearts this morning. Are we seeking God’s glory or our glory? Are we following God’s purposes or our purposes? His direction or our designs? You know how you can answer that? By answering that, first of all, individually. Whose agenda are you following? Together we simply put into cooperate form what we, individually, do and how we, individually, live. If we are a unified church, by His grace, even today, I believe we are, it is only because we each, individually, are stepping down and recognizing the value, the merits, and the accomplishments of someone else. We are handling criticism with tact and with focus. And we are at odds with anything that will disunify us. And we, like Gideon, will NOT allow it to exist. You and I have been given a tremendous responsibility and privilege. He has uniquely blessed this church. We are poised to see that potential magnified a thousand times over when we move. And, by His grace, it will happen if we seek His plan, His purpose, His glory, His honor, His cause. May it be. Let’s pray.