Gideon: — Preparation of the Instruments
Judges 6 — 7:9.
In the victory and song of Deborah and Barak we reach the highest point in the book of Judges. The happy and exultant celebration of victory in the song is unmarred by any subsequent shadow, so far as the participants were concerned. It reaches on in type to the full victory for Israel, and the earth which will usher in the glories of the millennium. As we are taught, it is the third section of the narrative of bondages and deliverances, which significantly reminds us not merely of the resurrection of the enemy, in Jabin, but of the sanctuary, of which the number three also speaks, with its worship. It is, as I have said, the clearest and highest point reached in the entire book.
We come now to the fourth section, which we might well expect to find somewhat in contrast with the previous one. It is the world as contrasted with the sanctuary, the place of testing and of weakness. We will find all these features in the narrative before us, both in the enemy, the deliverer, and in the sequel. The world, weakness, testing, failure — are all prominent here. Nor need we be surprised at this weakness being manifested after as well as before the deliverance. Nor must we think that because there is failure we have no profitable lessons here. On the contrary, the lessons are many, and of the gravest importance. Just as in our individual histories, we have learned much from our failures — or at least should have — so will we gather lessons none the less important because they are humbling. Be it ours to profit by the examples and warnings which have been written "for our admonition."
Referring for a moment to the previous lessons, we saw in the first enemy, the king of Aram, the spirit of independence of God, which is the beginning of all departure; in Moab we saw profession, and in the Philistines we had a glance at the religion of the flesh. Jabin and the northern foe taught us of the intrusion of reason into the things of God. We have now to gather the lesson from the oppression of Midian.
First of all, we are reminded that the power of any enemy is put in his hands by the unfaithfulness of God's people. "The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years." It was no might of Midian that could or would have prevailed had not the Lord permitted it; nor would He have done this had there not been a necessity in Israel's condition. Those who will not learn in communion with God, must do so in the hands of the enemy. "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God." (Jer. 2:19.) But I do not enlarge here upon a truth of which Scripture is full, and which is upon every page of the book we are studying.
The nature of the oppression is dwelt upon at considerable detail, and this will help us to definitely gather who these Midianites are spiritually. For fear of them the children of Israel are driven to dig dens and caves for shelter. They settled down upon the land, and with them the Amalekites and a mixed multitude of eastern tribes, like the plague of locusts, destroying all food and sustenance. Not settling, like the Moabites, on the borders of the land at Jericho, they swept like a destructive plague over the whole territory "till thou come to Gaza," the stronghold of the Philistines. So dreadful was their oppression that the children of Israel cry to the God from whom they had so basely departed. Who then is this deadly enemy, for the Church?
Midian was a descendant of Abraham, and in that way, related according to nature with Israel, as were many of these peoples. But from an early day they had shown themselves the enemies of God's people. It was they who with the Ishmaelites carried Joseph down into Egypt and sold him into bondage there. When the nation had been delivered from that bondage and were nearing their inheritance, it was the Midianites, in connection with Moab, who first tried to get the curse of God upon them through Balaam, and, failing in this, succeeded in defiling them, and bringing God's afflicting hand on them, because of their participation in the unholy rites of Baal Peor. Because of this, God had commanded them to "vex the Midianites."
That which brings God's people into Egypt, which defiles them with its unholy alliances, is only too common, and we cannot fail to recognize in it the spirit of the world. That it was closely connected with Moab, and in many ways similar to him, we need not be surprised; nor that he had associated with him Amalek, the lusts of the flesh, and nameless hordes from the East. The world and the flesh are close allies, and constantly act together, while with these come in a flood of evil principles and practices which, while not classified, are all confederate.
Midian means "strife," a fitting name for that spirit of the world which brings in the strife of desires in the soul. "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit," and wherever the world is allowed it will introduce strife against everything that is of God. I need but refer to well-known illustrations. Look at that happy young Christian: the things of God are his delight, and fellowship with the people of God his only pleasure. But he wanders in heart, and the world finds an entrance. It will not be in some grossly immoral form, but some "harmless pleasure" is indulged, some "agreeable companionship" is formed. Mark the results. Strife with divine things ensues. Conscience will not let him go on declining in spiritual vigor without a vigorous protest, and the peace of his heart, which at one time was "as a watered garden," is exchanged for the battlefield of contending forces. Midian, the world, has brought his strife into his once happy life, and it will continue to do its deadly work till he is delivered, or wholly ensnared and held in complete slavery. Some fellow-Christian seeing his peril, seeks to warn and to deliver him, but only to be drawn into the "strife." "What is the harm? Many others do worse than I." Ah, brethren, how strife accompanies worldliness. Do we not know something of this?
"A man's foes shall be they of his own house." What is happier than a Christian home, where Christ is owned as Lord? It is a little foretaste of that heavenly home where naught can intrude to mar our eternal peace, because naught can interfere with Christ's absolute control. Contrast this with the divided house, where the world is allowed. Faith must stand firm, but O the sorrow and the strife that the world brings in. A faithful Christian parent is seeking to keep the world out of his home; a wife is seeking to walk with God, while her husband is doing his utmost to draw her into the world. Will there not be strife, must there not be if one is to be faithful to the Lord and His truth? Thus we seem to have clearly enough the meaning of Midian. But let us look a little further.
The Church has often been under the dominion of the world. We saw before, that Pergamos was a mingling of the Church and the world. We connected it then with Moab, the world of profession taking possession of the Church. The connection of this with Midian is only too manifest, as, indeed, we have the historical allusion in the address to Pergamos, of the defilement that Balaam brought in through the Moabites and Midianites. Very early in its history did the Church come under this power. Rome gained its power through the Church coming under the sway of the emperors Constantine and his successors.
But how has it been since? God in His mercy has granted seasons of revival to His people, and often the saints throughout entire countries have experienced His recovering mercy, delivering them from the world's power. But has that deliverance continued? Need we only look back to see illustrations of the sway of Midian? Alas, look around at the Church today, and see not merely the compromise of Pergamos, but the satisfaction of Laodicea. The Midianite is in God's territory, robbing His heritage. If we do not know it, we but show how abject is our slavery.
Look at those various testimonies which began as a distinct protest against the world. Do I need to name them? I would name all if I did so. What has become of their testimony against the world? Ask the sorrowing saints of God who sigh and cry for the abominations, and hide themselves as far as possible from the strife all about them. It is needless to specify: worldly amusements in the Church, worldly methods of money-raising — the professed Bride of Christ has descended to the level of the world, and panders to its desires. We are told that the young must be held, and on this plea the professing church enters into competition with the theatre. But enough: tears shall be our only language as we think of the awful bondage to Midian all about us.
Let us come right home. Let us be warned. The moment the world is allowed among those who are gathered to the name of the Lord — young or old — farewell to the testimony of Christ. May our God awaken us to this dreadful and insidious foe!
But let us return to our chapter. Midian devours or destroys all the fruits of the earth. Canaan was noted, as it is even at this day in parts of its territory, for its wonderful fertility. God could speak of it as "the glory of all lands," and He promised them they should "eat their bread without scarceness." How many of the Lord's people have to complain of their leanness. They find so little food, the Bible is a closed book to them, their souls are suffering a famine. Ah, brethren, the world has devoured the food. You cannot enjoy the world and enjoy Christ. It is an impossibility. Christ is the food of His people, but He cannot be enjoyed if the world is allowed to usurp His place.
We spoke of Moab as suggesting an incubus upon the Church, an incubus of profession. Eglon was a very fat man, which suggests an inert mass, weighing down. But Midian does not seem to suggest anything of such a negative character. There is an energy in these hordes which tells of a foe that is constantly moving. He is constantly seeking new points of attack. We need not be reminded how active Satan is to bring people under the power of the world. Before we know it, some little loophole has opened the way, and the enemy has come in like a flood. Let us not think of the spirit of worldliness as something that moves slowly. It is wily and active, and its name is legion. If asked to give a list of what pursuits and habits were worldly, it would be an impossibility. The Spirit of God has, however, done what is far better for us; He has told us what the world is not. "All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world." We have the general characteristics of the world — lust; but what marks it unmistakably is that it is not of the Father. Whatever we cannot enjoy in communion with the Father, no matter how harmless it may seem to be, is a thing to be avoided as of the world. How plainly does the apostle James put it, "He that will be the friend of the world is the enemy of God."
But how touching is that word "Father" — the Father's love, the Father's heart, the Father's care. What room or need in the soul that is in the happy enjoyment of these for the things that are in the world? It is satisfied, and "the full soul loatheth an honeycomb." Does not even the first approach of worldliness tell of a coldness of heart towards the Father? Ah, how often is He grieved at heart. On the contrary, if we are engaged in the things that occupy the Father, if we are occupied with His thoughts, as unfolded in His word, delighted with Him who is the object of the Father's delight, there will be nothing in the world for us.
"Its pleasures now no longer please,
Nor e'en content afford."
But the people of God at last cry out under the bondage. That is one sign of the child of God — he must be miserable under the domination of his spiritual foes. Sooner or later he will cry to God. You notice, however, that the cry does not bring immediate relief. On the contrary, God sends a messenger, a prophet to deepen the sense of His displeasure. He goes back, as He always does, to the redemption from Egypt — the pledge and the power for all other deliverances, and recalls to them what He had done. He had brought them into this land, had driven the enemy out of it, and told His people not to fear the false gods that the Amorites had served. How simple was all this. How impossible, we might say, ever to fear the powers of evil which had been overthrown. Yet they — are they alone? — had not obeyed His voice.
What holy wisdom we have here. The people are bitterly oppressed, and they cry to God, but instead of sending relief at once, He deepens in their souls the sense of the evil of their course. Our first thought is to get out of the consequences of our folly and disobedience: God's desire is that we should thoroughly judge what led us into it. His patience and His pity combine in divine proportions, that we may get the profit of the lesson. Let us remember this in our dealings with others, and ourselves, for Him. Let us not be too eager to deliver His people from an embarrassing position, but rather to see that they have been to the bottom of the matter with God. Were this always done, there would be fewer cases of disappointment at apparent lapses of those whom we thought recovered.
Having thus borne faithful witness to the sin of the people, our gracious God now begins to intervene in their behalf. He is going to deliver them from the bondage of Midian, but where will he find a suited instrument, one who will in himself embody the lessons of the deliverance, and who thus will point out the reasons for the servitude? He sends His messenger to Ophrah in the tribe of Manasseh, to Gideon, the son of Joash. He finds him threshing out wheat behind, or in, the wine-press, to hide it from the Midianites.
Remembering that Midian represents the world, we see at once how appropriate that the deliverer from this should have the character of that which overcomes the world. It is our faith that overcomes, as we are told, and that faith exhibits itself in the character suggested by the tribe of Manasseh. Manasseh means "forgetting," and it is the heavenly racer who, "forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth to those which are before," distances the entangling elements of the world, and has the prize on high ever before him. The principle that will overcome the world, then, is this unworldly spirit which has its hopes and expectations elsewhere.
Ophrah means "dust," and one who truly realizes the shame of the people of God being in subjection to the world will abide in the dust; he will, like Daniel, pour out his heart in shame at the disgrace to the name of God that such a thing is possible. The mark of a truly spiritual mind is not criticism of the sins of the professing church, but sorrow and shame at such a state. The man who judges does not realize the common sin and shame, which has brought such reproach upon the testimony of God's truth. Such can never be used to deliver the saints from their bondage. Rome was full of satirists, who held up the vices and follies of the luxurious capital to the scorn of all; but all the scorn was ineffectual to break one bond, or to turn one soul to God. The reason is evident; criticism does not bring in God, nor does it mourn. If we are ourselves to be individually set free from the world, we must dwell at Ophrah, and there, at least, we can receive the message that will emancipate others also.
His father was Joash, the son of Abiezer; "despairing," the son of "my father is help." It is the one who despairs of any other help, realizing his own weakness, who will turn to the Father, in whom alone our help is found. We may not refuse the help and suggestions which such names give, dear brethren, for scripture is full, as you know, of examples which show just such a use of them. Often they are the key which opens a passage of scripture, which would otherwise be without meaning to us.
Gideon's employment is most suggestive he is threshing out wheat and hiding it in the winepress, as being both secure, and an unlikely place for the Midianites to look. That which they destroy is what he is securing as his food. The wheat suggests Christ, the food of the soul, as He is revealed to us in the scriptures, and the threshing tells of that patient effort to find Him as our food, in the Word. The winepress reminds of the "blood of the grape," and of His blood which cleanses from all sin. It may well then suggest the cross, the winepress for Him, and this, indeed, is an effectual shelter and hiding place for faith from all the power of the world. We take our place by the cross, and no Midianite dare dispute our position.
But notice the determination of faith. The enemy is everywhere present, but he must have his food. It is an absolute necessity, and without permission from friend or foe, he is getting it, and hiding it from those who would gladly destroy it. Israel has failed, the land is downtrodden by the enemy, but he must have food for his soul. Do you think he will be disappointed? Whoever goes hungry, Gideon will not, for there is the compulsion of a faith that will not be hindered in gaining what it needs.
Let us pause here a moment, brethren, and consider this solitary man. He is in tremendous earnest, there is no thought of giving up, for what he seeks is an absolute necessity to him. How is it with us? Is Christ a necessity to us? Must we have Him as our food no matter who has departed from God, or how great the obstacles? And do we know what it is to use the shelter of the cross not only as that which has secured our everlasting salvation, but as that which has delivered us from this present evil world? Thus it becomes the pledge that we shall not be disturbed in getting our food.
The angel addresses him in a striking way, "The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor." At first sight he might seem like anything but a man of valor. He is in hiding. A man of valor would be facing the enemy, leading the people against them, and driving them from the land. But God seeth not as man seeth. He sees the valor in that determination to get the wheat at any cost. He knows the purposes of heart that are forming, perhaps, not even with the knowledge of Gideon, and He sees that it is all connected with that lowly work of beating out the wheat.
Who are God's mighty men of valor? Where will we find them? Not necessarily in the public places, contending with infidels or denouncing the follies of the day surely not there first. If you want to see God's mighty men, you must look at the closet. There is a mother, with a family of children, and work that never ends. There is the temptation to keep up with the rest of the world in appearances, and all that subtle allurement which makes slaves of so many mothers. There is the necessary work which must be done each day, and which presses on her every moment. How strong the temptation to offer a hurried prayer, and rush through the day with the heart out of the presence of God. Is it any wonder that the "strife" of Midian comes in? That there is little power to control the children, and none to guide them in God's ways?
But see; she lets her work stand, takes her Bible and goes off for a quiet season of reading and prayer. She pleads that the cross of Christ has purchased for her at least that privilege, and she claims it as her own. But I hear some busy housewife say, "You do not know what I have to do." Ah, my sister, I know if you have not a settled purpose of heart to get food for your soul daily, you will never be an overcomer.
Here is the man of business, who will rise half an hour earlier than necessary for his business in order to get a word from God before he goes out to wrestle with the world. He must and will have that, if he cannot take his food, if his business goes. He seeks first as a matter of importance, the kingdom of God. It must be first, first, first — not in point of time merely or necessarily, but in importance.
Do you smile, and say that is putting it too strongly. I tell you frankly, brethren, you are not Gideons unless your soul responds to that. You are no mighty men of valor, nor will you ever deliver a single child of God from the world, unless your purpose of heart is such as I have been describing. What wonder is it that the mother must deplore the constant inroads of the world into her family, that her children naturally turn to that instead of to Christ? No, let it be written in letters of fire in our souls, in our consciences — Christ and His word first; everything else, even life, but secondary. Soon will we see Midian flee, when this is the case.
This is what takes courage, far more than the excitement of public speech. If you doubt it, make a fair trial, and see how many hindrances you will meet in maintaining such a habit. If you are a victor in the closet, you will be prepared for the more open conflicts, and you will find that the battle has been already practically won. God can salute you as a mighty man of valor, and use you to help others. Again I ask, dear brethren, how is it with us?
Gideon means, "cutter down," and we will presently see him at that work; but here we see where he gets his name. He cuts down for himself, with no eye but God's upon him. The one who can do that, can do more.
But how simple that is. We are not called to do great things, only to be faithful in the matter of our own soul's health, only to desire Christ above all else. Is it possible that we do not? And yet how few have the courage for this simple thing.
We return now to Gideon. You will see, as will ever be the case, that the man who is seeking food for himself is most deeply concerned for the welfare of all the Lord's people, and for His honor. "Oh my Lord, if the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all His miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?" He goes back, as you see, as so many of the saints in the Old Testament have done, to the redemption from Egypt.
It is the plea of the remnant in the days of Gentile oppression, just before the establishment of our Lord's kingdom: "Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: Thou hast cast out the heathen and planted it." "We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work Thou didst in their days, in the times of old How Thou didst drive out the heathen with Thy hand, and plantedst them." In view of these past works, faith pleads the present dreadful condition: "But Thou hast cast off and put us to shame; and goest not forth with our armies. Thou makest us turn back from the enemy: and they which hate us spoil for themselves." How like the oppression of Midian is this, and how similar to the faith of Gideon is this heart-broken plea of the remnant. Our God will never refuse to answer such appeals, though He must work most deeply in the hearts of the people, to bring them to a true sense of their own sin.
So, too, with those who mourn for the state of things in the Church today. They will not merely mourn at the declension during the past few years. They will not merely deplore that things are not as they were twenty or fifty years ago. They will compare the present state with Pentecost. When the Lord said to Ephesus, "Remember from whence thou hast fallen," He went back to her first love. How touchingly does God plead with Jerusalem in the same way: "I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals." The true mourner goes back to the point where God met the soul, and with that as a standard, measures the present condition. Ah, brethren, we can never boast, no matter how wondrous have been the revivals, when we remember what the Church was in those early days of first love. Surely sorrow and shame become us.
It is such a man that God can use as His instrument to deliver Israel. "Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?" You notice, He does not give him fresh might, but deems the might he had already shown as sufficient to deliver Israel. We have already seen the import of this, and I only call your attention to it again to show how God emphasizes the courage of a faith that gets its own food at all hazards. "Go in this thy might."
But Gideon, like Moses and many another servant of God, has got to get fully to the end of himself. He must be done with his humility as well as his pride. Gideon had been assured that the Lord was with him, and he asks, "wherewith shall I save Israel?" He has himself before his eyes, for the time. He speaks of the poverty of his family, of his own insignificance in his father's house. But what have these to do with the living God? Did he think it was his own strength that was going to overthrow Midian? Ah, he was forgetting the lessons of his own faith, for the time.
But Gideon is not alone in this. How common it is to find those who have done with boasting and thinking they are great, now occupied with their littleness. But little "I" is as great a hindrance as great "I." It looks very humble to depreciate one's self, to keep in the background, but there is often a very subtle pride that wears this garb of humility. It is not self, good or bad, that is to be before us; weak or strong "I" are to be alike refused, that God alone may have the glory.
With what grace is this bit of humble pride rebuked in Gideon, which evidently was not so deep-seated that it needed more than a word to displace it. "Surely I will be with thee, and thou shall smite the Midianites as one man." After all, the enemy is, for faith, but a single one. He is a host for oppression, and to terrify, but the moment faith asserts itself, there is but one man, as when David met the giant.
We have now Gideon's response, and the demand of his faith for a confirmatory sign. He asks and gets these signs a number of times, and they are no doubt not only a confirmation in the way of a response to his request, but in themselves carry a suggestive lesson suited to the need. More than that, Gideon desires to bring an offering; he will be a worshiper. He, therefore, brings the familiar sacrifice — a kid, and ephah of flour and unleavened cakes. All these speak of Christ. The kid, while here apparently a peace-offering, suggests the thought of sin, for which it was most frequently used in the Levitical service. It reminds us thus of Christ made sin for us, but also the One who is thus perfectly acceptable to God. The unleavened cakes and the fine flour are fittingly associated with the kid, and recall the spotless person of Christ, as that did His work. All is put on the rock, another figure of Christ, and fire carries it all up to God. Thus we might say he brought nothing but Christ, whom God ever accepts. What better sign could he, or we, want than that? If we have nothing but Christ, His work and His person, we may be assured that God's acceptance of Him is the amplest assurance and pledge that we shall be "more than conquerors through Him that loved us." The world never has, and never can, face these precious facts. It can never stand before the simplest soul that has them in divine reality as the basis and expression of relationship with God. They are at the same time the witness of his separation from, and victory over the world.
Gideon does not seem to realize that he has been face to face with the angel of the Lord until He has departed. Then he is overwhelmed with the solemn fact, and dreads the consequences. But grace quickly reassures him, and he builds an altar to the Lord — Jehovah-Shalom, "Jehovah is Peace." In the midst of all the tumult that raged about him, in spite of the dread conflicts that were soon to take place, there was one place where all was perfect peace, one Person with whom there was no conflict Jehovah Himself. It reminds us of our Lord's words to His disciples: "In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
How beautiful and quiet is all this in the midst of utter ruin and confusion. "When he giveth quiet, who then can trouble?" Gideon has found the God of peace, and we see him, the accepted worshiper. He is hid thus in the secret of God's presence from the pride of man and the strife of tongues. After all, worship is the true remedy for worldliness. Both cannot exist together.
But this is not all. We have been seeing the preparation of the instrument in private. The scene now changes, and he needs all the faith he has for the next step. He is to cast down the altar of Baal belonging to his father, cut down the grove, or column, and offer a bullock upon an altar to Jehovah. After all, this is but the natural enlargement of the worship he had just enjoyed. God will not share His glory with Baal. One altar or the other must be thrown down. Gideon is to make good his name, "the cutter down," and to show the vigor of his faith and the reality of his obedience.
But what a heart-searching test is applied to him. He is to exalt Jehovah in his own home. After his own personal relation with God had been established, we might say, after he had won his victory in private, he is to establish those relations in his own home circle. Does he worship and obey God for himself? then that same obedience must be claimed for the entire circle of his responsibilities. Is a man going to be a deliverer for all Israel, while his own family is in bondage? Is he to lift up the altar of Jehovah for all Israel, and are those who are nearest and dearest to him to bow to Baal? The circle of divine influence expands from the center. How many are tempted to invert this order. They may be jealous enough for God's altar for all Israel, and yet have never set it up in their own homes. Apply this very simply to the family altar, as it is called very appropriately. How can one enjoy the privileges of the public altar, in its fulness, who disregards this home altar? He is too timid to read the word of God and pray with his family how can he expect liberty and blessing in public prayer? I do not mean to confine it to this one thing, but here, as in many other ways, a single matter shows the general state.
But it is no easy matter to erect God's altar on the ruins of Baal's. Many a one who may have boldly confessed Christ in public, has shrunk from doing so in the home. But this is the test. It must be done, or there will be no further progress.
Naturally enough, Gideon shrinks from doing this publicly. I do not say he showed what we would call remarkable courage. Like Nicodemus, who shrinks from going to our Lord in open day, Gideon does his hard task under cover of the night. I want you to notice one thing, however. Whether courageously or not, the work is done and that is the main point. I need not dwell upon details here, which doubtless the Spirit of God has brought home to the conscience many times. I do not ask what you are to do, but leave this matter with each conscience in the presence of God.
We can imagine with what trepidation Gideon may have awaited the morrow, or with what calmness, if he had God simply before him. The men of the city gather around and demand that the sacrilege to Baal be avenged, and naturally appeal to Gideon's father to deliver up the wrongdoer. But they have left God out of their reckoning, and he who had but just been a worshiper of the false god, is filled with contempt for a god who cannot maintain his own dignity. "Let Baal plead," he says, and Gideon has won his second victory. God is now enthroned in the home. Has any one been trembling and hesitating to take some plain step of faith? Let them learn from Gideon, and take courage. How all the consequences you dread would fail to materialize. The very ones whose opposition you dread will approve. Or if not, what can happen? You do not really expect to be put to death, but suppose it were even that, have you any fear of that which will introduce you into the presence of the Lord?
The narrative now passes from the private to the public stage. Such a matter as the overthrow of Baal's altar seems sufficient to arouse the Midianites. At any rate, they gather an enormous army, and take the field. Gideon, too, comes to the front, and having been faithful in his own private circle, can send out the trumpet call for all Israel. The Spirit of God endues him for special work, and in response the men of Abiezer, who had but lately demanded his death, and Manasseh, Asher and Zebulun join his standard. Truly, when the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of God lifts up a standard against him. Let there be the preliminary work of God in a soul, and he will find that others desire liberation from bondage, too, and will follow his lead, as he follows Christ. Ah, if Christ is before the soul, and Christ alone if we have faithfully followed as He has led, we will find that He will use us each according to our measure, for help in the great warfare.
Gideon now asks and receives two confirmatory signs that God will save Israel by his hands. He puts a fleece upon the threshing-floor, and at his request it is filled with dew, while the surrounding floor is dry. The next night, the opposite occurs, and the fleece remains dry while the surrounding floor is wet. Thus Gideon knows that he is dealing with God, and that all power is with Him. What an encouragement it must have been to him, to have, as it were, a direct and tangible evidence that God was with him. The boldness of faith, even when it seems to need confirmatory signs, never offends our gracious God. When he promised all blessing to Abraham, and that he would inherit the land of Canaan, Abraham asks, "Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?" Is God offended that His word is not sufficient? Ah, no, but He gives the wondrous night vision of the furnace and the flaming torch. "Prove me now," He says to Israel "Ask of the Lord a sign," He says to King Ahaz.
But, as I have already said, these signs are no mere arbitrary wonders. They are meant to convey a lesson, as well as to confirm faith, a lesson appropriate to the occasion, and reaching far more deeply than the relief of the outward need. What then are we to learn from this two-fold sign?
Dew was the familiar token of God's favor, as it was the source largely of the fertility of the land, which would have been parched and barren without it. Isaac, in pronouncing the blessing upon Jacob, uses this figure (Gen. 27:28). Moses repeats it, in his closing blessing upon the tribes (Deut. 33:28). Elijah shows God's judgment upon the land by declaring dew should not fall (1 Kings 17:1). The prophet Haggai repeats the simile, "Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit" (Hag. 1:10). And Hosea, in describing the restoration of the nation, when God will bless them again, describes Him as saying, "I will be as the dew unto Israel. She shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon" (Hosea 14:5). These are some of the scriptures which show how the simile was used.
We know that all refreshing, whether for Israel or the Church, is by the Holy Spirit, and that the divine dew is His blessed influence bringing refreshing and help. Just as without the dew, the land would cease to be fruitful, so without the Spirit's unhindered work there can be no fruits. Barrenness will be the result.
The fleece is the wool taken from the sheep, and seems to suggest the removal from the owner of that which rightly belonged to it. It is significant that in three scriptures, where sheep-shearing is mentioned, there was evil. Judah's sin with Tamar was at the time of his sheep-shearing Nabal's taunt to David was given at a like time, and Absalom slew his brother on a similar occasion. The prophet Ezekiel, in speaking of the false shepherds, says, "Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed, but ye feed not the flock." (Ezek. 34:3.) Scripture abounds with illustrations from a shepherd's care of his flock, but it is striking that these instances of sin and violence should be the only occasions where the shearing of sheep is referred to.
And how the people had been sheared, we might say, by the Midianites, till nothing but the fleece remained, a remnant. This was looking at their state historically. But when we think of the subsequent history of the people, their captivity in Babylon, and their present complete dispersion, we can, indeed, say they are "a people scattered and peeled."
The threshing-floor is the place where the grain is separated from the chaff, under the hoofs of the ox, or the teeth of the threshing-instrument. In that way it would suggest the enemy, but looked at as God's instrument to purge His people. In fact, the nations are so spoken of in at least one passage (Am. 1:3), while they themselves axe to be purged by similar judgments. I think we are right in saying that the thought suggested is God's instrument of chastening.
When Gideon asks for the dew upon the fleece, it speaks of God's giving His blessing to His persecuted people, not only at that time, but in the last days, when He shall be as the dew to Israel. When the dew is seen upon the floor and not the fleece, it suggests the blessing that has come to the Gentiles during the period of Israel's rejection. We might say the present time.
But whether He give or withhold blessing, God is manifesting Himself for His people. His very chastenings are a pledge of future mercy. The very dryness of the Jews now, while blessing has come upon the Gentiles, is a sure proof that God will one day intervene for His beloved earthly people. "As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers' sakes."
May we not thus interpret all God's ways with His people? Faith sees both in the chastening and the blessing, the sign of deliverance. Why should He chasten, unless it were for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness? If there is faith to lay hold on Him, might it not receive as a sign even the dryness of the Lord's people — a sign of a coming shower? For who shows us the dryness? and if He show it, is not that a pledge of the help we so much need?
We are now to see Gideon in connection with the people. It is not so much his, but their preparation for the service. The whole army, some thirty-two thousand, is encamped at an appropriately-named well, the well of Harod, or "trembling." No doubt it fittingly described the condition of most, for when the Lord had him proclaim through the army that all who were afraid should return home, twenty-two thousand availed themselves of the permission.
God had provided for this always. In the law, He had directed that this proclamation should be made, in order that the timid should not make a panic by the contagion of their fear. But He has another reason here. The people were too many to make the truth perfectly plain, that it was not human, but divine power that had wrought the victory. Man is too prone to boast, and all occasion for doing so must be taken away, or boast he surely will.
There is a subtle desire for numbers with us all. Why the desire for statistics, numbers of conversions, numbers of "members," if man has not the thought that the power is in the numbers? On the contrary, does not Scripture abound with illustrations just to the contrary? Numbers have too often been the occasion for the pride that goeth before destruction. When the numbers of the disciples increased, the murmuring began. Far be the thought that we are to refuse numbers for their own sake. We should surely rejoice for the many who receive blessing, but our eye is not to be on the many, but on the Lord.
Particularly is this true in a day of decline, when God has raised up a remnant testimony to His truth. Numbers, if not truly clear — and I might say tested as these were — will but make the testimony unwieldy. Better far the little company, tried and tested by God Himself, than the large and respectable body which commands respect in the eyes of the world by its numbers. But this will be clearer as we go on.
The fearful depart. How humiliating to think of two-thirds of those who had rallied to Gideon being too timid to go on. Ah, are there not many in our day who see the path of testimony and conflict, and have not the courage to take it? We fear persecution, we fear scorn, we fear what the world will say. Then, alas, we are not ready for God to use, and must stand aside.
But do we realize this, and are we ready to own it with shame to God? Is not this itself enough to encourage us to count upon Him for the courage? You remember that Gideon feared to do his first work by day. Why should you not take the path of faith even with trembling? That is far better than boasting. May our God give us the courage of obedience, and though trembling, may we follow on in His path.
But a severer test is yet to be applied. God says, "the people are yet too many." So they are to be brought down to the water, and there tried in a way they do not understand. It is to see how they drink the water. If they catch it up in their hands, lapping it like dogs, they are chosen. Only three hundred do so; the remainder of the ten thousand kneel down to drink.
The test seems a plain one. It is necessary to quench the thirst, but it must not be such an absorbing necessity that it takes the chief place. The needs of this life are evident, but are they chief with us? Do we catch up as we pass the things of this life, or are they our absorbing occupation? Ah, brethren, how many of us can stand this divine test? How solemn it is, too, to remember that we are being tested without our knowledge. If we knew when the test was being applied, we would be on our good behavior, but God is watching us when we little think it, and accepting or rejecting us for the posts of danger and honor.
I need not say this is no question of salvation. It is a question of service, of testimony. Can God use us as instruments to deliver His beloved people from the bondage of the world? Surely He cannot if we are partly bound to the world ourselves. But how dreadful is the thought that we are not in a condition for service, and God has to set us aside. May it bring us to searchings of heart, to see if there is in us a subtle slavery to the world, or a failure to make God's interests first. A trifle may make our state apparent, even as here such a trifle as a drink of water. Only one thing can make us answer to God's test, and that is a heart that is absolutely set upon His will. "This one thing I do," says the apostle.
Dear brethren, how is it with us? Are we set aside as unfit for service, or are we vessels sanctified and meet for the Master's use?
And so the little company of three hundred are the honored ones, to overthrow the power of Midian. Few and despised, doubtless, they were, even by many of their brethren, but still they are the chosen ones. Do you not covet a place with them? What would you give for a place with the three hundred? Money, nor knowledge, nor influence, can buy a place with them. It costs more than gold it costs self. To refuse, to have no confidence in ourselves — this is the only way to be fit for Christ's use. Are we bound to be fit for His use? Is it more to us than all else in this world, more than self? Then let us learn from God's way with Gideon and his company how He prepares vessels for service. It is the same lesson we have had before, emphasized by its new settings — the lesson of no strength, no goodness in ourselves. Christ is all, Christ alone.
But one thing more is left to look at just now. The rest will be deferred. Again does the patient care of God provide for the absolute assurance of victory to Gideon before he goes into the fight. You will notice that Gideon does not ask for this sign, but avails himself of it when it is offered by God. It is something more than a sign, beginning in figurative language, the enemy himself gives the interpretation, with the assurance of complete victory.
One of the host of Midian had a dream, and Gideon is permitted to hear him relate it to his fellow. It is simple almost to rudeness. A cake of barley bread falls into the camp of Midian and overthrows a tent. His companion interprets it in plain language: "This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon, the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all the host." Thus from the lips of the enemy he gets God's assurance of the success of the entire movement.
Barley bread is the poorest of all foods — the food of the paupers. It suggested thus poverty and feebleness — the very lessons emphasized all along. The fact, too, that it was food and not a sword that was to overthrow Midian is significant. When the people of God are feeding upon Christ, they are getting a sword for the enemy. God can use even our feeble and partial apprehensions of Christ as a most effective weapon. The lad had but five barley loaves of bread, yet these were enough in the Lord's hand to feed the multitude. So it is ever. Will we not learn the simple lesson? Weakness, helplessness, nothingness — in Christ's hands will win the day against all the power of the world. The Lord grant that we may know more of this practically, for the sake of Christ our Lord, and the help of His Church.