In order to understand and appreciate Gideon's history and line of service we must survey the condition of God's people when he was called out to be a witness and a servant among them.
Israel had been under the oppressive rule of Midian for seven years. For a perfect period they were ruled over by their enemies because they had rebelled against the rule of God, and are thus taught in the land of blessing and privilege the contrast between the rule of God and that of man. We are always ruled by some one or some thing; and, if not by God, by that power which is hostile to God and His people; and to this power we are often brought into subjection in order that we may learn how much better is the sway of God than of the world under which our souls are worn out and harassed. This is a discipline to which all the people of God are liable and of which the church has had bitter experience, for instead of enjoying her privileges and blessings she has submitted to the power of the world. Harassed and disquieted, many of the true ones are searching here and there, in the dens of the mountains and the caves and strongholds, in order to enjoy a momentary respite from the grinding oppression which has been allowed because of the church's rejection of the Lordship of Christ.
The greatest servant is the greatest sufferer ; he must always be equal to the state of things on which he is to act. He must have suffered with the people from the circumstances of trial ; he must have known the depths of misery to which they have been reduced; he must know what he is to emerge from and reach unto or he cannot serve the people according to their need. He must have endured himself and known the sorrow of the judgment or he could not appreciate the deliverance which he is appointed to effect. Paul was the most bigoted Pharisee and of all men knew most of the evil effect of their prejudices. Hence he was able, when taught of God, most effectually and accurately to expose and confute them. In nature he who had gone into the depths of prejudices, in grace will leave none of them uncorrected or undisclosed, for the Lord will make His servants skillful in denouncing and repudiating the very evil their own nature has led them into. " When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren."
Gideon was thus prepared, not as yet by a knowledge of his own evil nature, but by a practical identification with the circumstances in which the people of Israel were plunged on account of their failure. He suffered with them and no doubt had joined in their cry to the Lord on account of the Midianites. But before he as the deliverer is introduced on the scene the Lord answers that cry by exposing to the people (by the mouth of a prophet) how they had departed from Him ; judges 6: 8-10. The first great dealing of the Lord with the soul is to shew it its decline and failure. The word of God pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Its great action is to reveal to the soul its condition, and in every dispensation the prophets acted on souls by the word. By them the secrets of hearts were made known and convicted. So when the Lord had disclosed to the woman of Samaria her moral condition she immediately pronounced Him a prophet.
Here, then, we find the people prepared for approaching deliverance by the conviction of their consciences ; and this being done the angel of the Lord immediately opens communications with the appointed deliverer, whose fitness for the work is evidenced by the position and occupation in which he is found. " Gideon threshed wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites." This was characteristic of the man. The iron had entered his soul, but his strength had not failed him in the day of adversity, and real strength is that which is equal to the demand for it, and the emergency tests an otherwise dormant ability. Gideon's energy was equal to the emergency; he was strengthening the things that remain that were ready to die, and while evincing his faithfulness in that which is least, the angel of the Lord, after silently watching him, reveals himself, and addresses him thus : " The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour." A strange address apparently to a poor thresher of wheat! But the Lord estimates not as man; He knows the vessel which He can use, and what it is able to perform. As the apostle says, " He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry." He designates Gideon " a mighty man of valour," because He appreciated the efforts which Gideon used to maintain the residue of blessings, and while thus employed He calls him to enter on a higher mission and a greater service.
Gideon was evidently a man who had pondered over the ways of the Lord, for his reply is, " 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 out of Egypt? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites." In this rejoinder we see that he not only knew how the Lord had dealt with Israel in time past, but also the judicial position in which they now were. He saw God alone on either side. Consequently the angel " looked upon him," or was turned towards him, and commissioned him to " go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites : have not I sent thee? " The servant of God must know and believe that in God is the power which alone can set up or pull down ; it is the foundation-stone in the soul for any deliverance. " Twice have I heard this, that power belongeth unto God."
Gideon knew this; but there is a great difference between owning all power as belonging to God, and seeing it acting on our behalf ; and as the former conviction makes us feel our own powerlessness the more, it will produce despondency unless we can rest on the assurance that God will act for and through us. Gideon cannot see how the link can be established between God and man, so that man can be made the administrator of God's power and will, and pleads his own insignificance and insufficiency. And the Lord, in order to establish his soul, gives a promise : " Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man."
Great as was this promise, Gideon could not yet appropriate it ; however wonderful and suited, he could not embrace it until he feels in his own soul the link between himself and God, and is assured of his own acceptance, and therefore he exclaims, " If now I have found grace in thy sight, shew me a sign that thou talkest with me." And then, having brought his offering, and set it forth according to the angel's directions, as we read in verses 18-22, the Lord accepts the offering, causes it to be consumed and disappears from Gideon's sight, thus giving him an unquestionable proof, not only of His own presence and power, but of Gideon's acceptance with Him. He had sought a sign, to enable his soul to trust in the promised succour of God in the great service appointed to him. For, as a fallen man estranged from God, he could see no ground for dependence, and the acceptance of the sign is almost too much for him. The Lord's manifestation of Himself convinces Gideon of His nearness to him, which naturally must be death to him, and of which he has the sense ; so that he exclaims, " Alas, 0 Lord God! for because I have seen an angel of the Lord face to face." The word of the Lord now calms and settles his soul. " Peace be unto thee : thou shalt not die " ; and thereon Gideon builds an altar, which denotes the relation in which he now stands with God, and which is the groundwork of his soul before he enters on his service. The altar, or place of access, is Jehovah-Shalom.
Thus is Gideon prepared for the work unto which he had been called, and it is profitable for every servant to ascertain how far he has been prepared in like manner for service. I have dealt thus minutely on the preparation, because, if I have not found an assured acceptance and rest with God, I cannot be free from my own interests to engage in the interests of the service unto which I am called.
Many attempt to serve the Lord, hoping thereby to acquire rest and peace for their own souls. Consequently they continue the service, and value it according as it contributes the desired relief It is true that every true soul acting for God must be established in the sense of His favours ; but when this is the object, the service is diverted from its true aim, and the proper spring of it is lost. Service must be undertaken by one happy in God, and therefore happy to be a fellow-worker with Him; and it must be pursued and executed quite independently of its effects on myself, and entirely with respect to the will of God. Again, others attempt to serve, but they have no ability, and in public ministrations are invariably engaged with themselves. They either do not know where to find rest and peace, or, having found it, they do not walk in the power of it-that power which faith confers.
Gideon having learnt to worship at Jehovah-Shalom (for the name of the altar indicates the worship), he is directed as to his line of action " the same night." Mark! blessing is never deferred when we are ready for it. Night is not the time for action, and man might say, " Tomorrow thou shalt have it," but with God the very moment we are ready for it, that moment we receive it. As with Isaac, as soon as ever he had reached Beersheba, the true place of separation, the Lord appeared to him " that same night " ; or as with Jacob, when he went on his way from Padan Aram, " the angels of God met him." The moment we get on God's line, that moment we find ourselves in the light and strength of God. " In the same night " Gideon is directed to be a witness of the grace he had learned, and after this manner-" Take thy father's young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it." His own home is the first circle in which the true servant will testify the great realities of his heart and service, and the power and distinctness with which this is done defines and prefigures his future course and ability. The Lord Jesus opened the divine record of His mission in " Nazareth, where he was brought up." Barnabas brought Saul from Tarsus. So here now, Gideon in a bold, determined manner is to declare to his father's house, and through it to all his city, the light which had dawned in his soul, at once demanding from him, and empowering him to bear the testimony. The false worship in his father's house he was utterly to abrogate and abolish.
Gideon obeys ; but he does it by night, fearing to do it by day. Here is an inroad of nature. His faith was as yet not such as to enable him to testify openly and boldly ; but what his faith did enable him to do, that he did.
Even where the word of God is received and obeyed, there is often a deficiency in the testimony. Many a true soul is not prepared to testify as openly as he might. It is better when obedience and testimony go together ; but though the flesh may hinder testimony, it cannot prevent obedience, if there be faith. Paul was both a minister and a witness. It is the highest privilege for a servant, not only to obey or minister, but to be able to testify of his identity with the ministry. If flesh works-if our own nature is allowed a voice, our testimony is compromised, we have lost our self-possession and the personal control which is necessary for a witness. But faith insists on obedience, even in secret. In our patience we must possess our souls. Practically our hearts and minds must be kept in peace, or we cannot without loss of testimony perform the very acts of faith. The emotions of the flesh are no excuse for not obeying what we have faith to do. We may, on account of them, lose the higher place of testimony, but nothing must hinder obedience to God's word. Moreover, if we are faithful, our acts will declare themselves, and thus testimony will follow, though it may not accompany them. Thus was it with Gideon. And on the outset he learns the hostility of his own people to faithfulness for the truth. Bot how little the world knows that its evil opposition always evokes from God's witness an amount of power more than sufficient to suppress it! The cry of the populace for the execution of Gideon is met by the challenge of Joash to let Baal plead for himself, if he be a god, and Gideon is surnamed Jerubbaal in consequence of this challenge.
How graciously and wisely the Lord was preparing His servant for the work in His counsel assigned to him! And how similar are His dealings with ourselves! His purpose is to assure the soul that as surely as Christ has triumphed over every power of evil, so surely may we conclude that every expression or manifestation of evil is properly only a guarantee to us that there is a power at hand for us more than superior to it. And, furthermore, the greater the amount of evil opposition the more marked and manifest will be the power which will overcome and silence it. We should comfort ourselves in every circumstance of life, that, " When the enemy cometh in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord raiseth up a standard against him "-a truth most important to the faithful servant in times of difficulty, and therefore implanted by divine power in the soul of Gideon, and now to be declared when all the Midianites and the children of the east were gathered together, and pitched in the valley of Jezreel. " Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet; and Abiezer was gathered after him." He had already passed through the two great experiences of soul which qualified and prepared him for his work; the first being that of his own relation to God, was established at the altar-Jehovah- Shalom, and the other-his faithfulness to the truth of God, in the utter abolition of all false worship. Thus qualified, he enters his public service. But here, again, although he has gathered by divine energy the men of Abiezer, Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali around him, and prepares for acting in the sight of the foe, he has to learn that unless he be assured of God's support he cannot proceed.
How vacillating and humbling is the secret history of the soul, so graciously detailed for us with reference to this faithful servant, though outwardly nought can be discerned but boldness and energy! And well it is for us that we have to do with a God as gracious and considerate of our weakness as He was with Gideon. By peculiar signs and intimations the gracious Lord confirms His servant's mind in the verity of those promises which he ought to have rested in at once, in mercy giving and repeating every proof or evidence required. It is a very different thing to seek for a sign to establish belief in God, and to seek for one to confirm us in the rightness of the path on which we have entered, and of God's support in it. The former the Lord will not grant or allow. " There shall no sign be given you," He says to the Jews, when they asked for a sign as a ground of belief. The divine path must be begun and entered on in faith, and without signs ; but the Lord continually vouchsafes evidences to confirm the soul already in the right path, with the assurance that it will succeed therein. The soul, when really depending on God, and entering on any signal work, seeks not to be conscious of its own ability, but of God's ; God's, if I may so say, in the abstract, that is, that it has to do with One whose power, and ability to apply that power, is equal to any demand. This is the discipline which establishes the soul and fully places it in the line appointed. In different ways it is granted to every servant ; but the sense communicated to the soul is this-that God's power is made known according to the requirements for it. Flaws in our faith become more apparent as the strain on us is greater. And many break down in their course, because they have not learned the universality and readiness of God's power.
Gideon finds what we shall all find-that God is gracious enough to instruct him in this point, in any way that he may suggest, or which will establish it most clearly to his own satisfaction. Whether it be dew on the fleece only, and dry on all the earth beside, or dry on the fleece only, and dew on all the earth, God vouchsafes it, and Gideon is confirmed ; the discipline is the exercise.
Thus ready, " he rose up early, and all the people that were with him, and pitched beside the well of Harod." Here the Lord interposes, in order to declare the work as His own. Israel must have no room to vaunt against God, and say, " Mine own hand hath saved me." Consequently Gideon must proclaim in the ears of the people, " Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from Mount Gilead." It must have been a trial to Gideon's faith to see twenty-two thousand of the people retire from his standard ; but this is a trial which ever accompanies faith. If he has believed, he must not be confounded because he sees the means, which he had expected to secure the desired end, almost entirely melt away. But Gideon is now strong in God, and through God's gracious dealing and education he is not discouraged ; nor need he be, for it is better for a man of faith to be in company with a few faithful than with many who are weak and wavering. But though less than , a third of the original number remained even that number the Lord pronounces " too many and He orders that the whole remaining company be put to the test in order to prove who was really fit for war and testimony. This test is a simple and unimportant one to man's eye but searching in its spiritual application. It proved whether they were wholly set on the one object-the one mission, or whether they could be distracted from it for a moment in order to indulge in natural refreshment.
This was the meaning of the test of the water. And what a result! Nine thousand seven hundred were found not whole-hearted, they went on their knees to drink. Though doubtless quite ready for war that purpose did not wholly overrule the desire for personal gratification. And three hundred only are found so single-hearted that they will but taste and hurry on. Alas! if such a test were put to us how few of us would be numbered in Gideon's band! Many of us might rank with the thirty-two thousand who set out with him, or even the ten thousand who had stood the first sifting, but how few. know that abnegation of nature which would enable them regardless of personal enjoyment to hurry on and fight the good fight of faith! There was but a little difference between those who lapped and those who went on their knees to drink. And surely water was a necessary refreshment for thirsty warriors. But the manner of taking it laid bare the condition of the heart, and it teaches us this great lesson-that unless we make the Lord and the Lord's glory our sole object and aim He cannot use us as deliverers, though He may graciously allow us to share in the deliverance which He has wrought by more faithful ones.
To Gideon also, as well as to his followers, must this sifting have been a trial of faith, for the decrease of numbers must have cast him still more in dependence on God, and many would be confounded by such a searching process ; but the untaught one is never equal to the trials of warfare. " The same night " (for now that the company is prepared there must be no delay) the Lord tells him, " Get thee down into the host," etc., but with peculiar graciousness and willingness to meet any wavering in Gideon's faith and invigorate him He adds, " If thou fear to go down, go thou with Phurah thy servant, and thou shalt hear what they say," etc. How manifold are the ways of the Lord on behalf of His servants! In the enemy's camp the interpretation of a dream announces Gideon's success and he hears how they already reckon on their own overthrow. Gideon was greatly encouraged by this ; he worshipped, and returned in full assurance of victory ere the conflict had begun. The details of that conflict (or rather conquest for it was a pursuit rather than a fight) I need not dwell on, except to say that it was truly strength made perfect in weakness. Lamps within the pitchers treasures in earthen vessels and trumpets to announce that their cause was the Lord's-were the only weapons of the little band until the enemy's swords were all turned against themselves.
Gideon's success was complete, and he was proved an instrument in God's hand to effect deliverance for His people. But what varied discipline he required before he was so! How little does one know of the antagonism of our nature to the will of God, who thinks that service can be undertaken without that self-renunciation which can only be learned by experimental knowledge of the superiority of God's ways and counsels! We never surrender what we value until we find a better, and man is so full of himself and his own will that until he find out the superiority of God's will he can be neither an obedient nor a suitable servant, that is, one who carries out the mind and intentions of his Master. And this is often learnt through varied and painful processes. Jonah was taught obedience in the whale's belly, because he learnt there to be reliant on God solely, but loss of the gourd taught him the mind and nature of God. The disciplined servant always finds a way to do his work however difficult it may appear. The greater the difficulties the greater must be the evidence that our resources are of a different order and character from those arrayed against us, and this will be found true in very small matters as well as in great ones.
The Midianites being overcome, Gideon has to meet with another difficulty and one of a different order, that is, to encounter the opposition of those who rank as his friends-an order of opposition which it requires more wisdom to surmount than even that of acknowledged foes. The manner in which he deals with the two classes of his contending brethren is instructive to us to notice. With the men of Ephraim (chap. 8), who chide him for not calling them to the battle, he takes the lower place-that of grace, the true, wise and godly position to hold toward those who seek to be conspicuous. Gideon might have replied that himself and the three hundred were specially called and chosen of God ; but he does not, and leaves the Ephraimites to the satisfaction of that measure of honour which God had put upon them. But towards the men of Succoth and Penuel, who refused to supply bread to the " faint, yet pursuing," he acts very differently. They must receive no quarter. Their conduct in refusing sustenance to the three hundred when contending with the enemy was opposition to the cause of God and the part of traitors to His name and glory. The principle is the same in both dispensations. There are cases which we must meet and deal with in grace, but we are on the other hand earnestly to contend for the faith. " I would," says the apostle, " they were even cut off who trouble you ... .. If any man bring not this doctrine [that is, of Christ], receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed."
In chapter 8: 22 once more, and for the last time, Gideon is presented to us in a new and peculiar line of discipline. Great services often engender self-satisfaction and desire for an exaltation which the unspiritual are too ready to accord to us. The multitude solicit Gideon to rule over them, but he replies, " I will not rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you." How could he take the place of that God who had so blessed and honoured him? So far he spoke in the wisdom of the Spirit, but his request for the earrings of his prey evinces a covert desire to commemorate his services though he had refused the place of power and dignity. What could such a desire produce but a snare, whether in the form of an ephod or anything else? And such it was to Gideon and to his house.
What a lesson and warning for us to see a servant of God, after such protracted teaching for the work of God, in a moment, as it were, lose himself, and after attaining so high and distinguished a place through service, sink from man's sight behind a cloud! It teaches us that though we may refuse a public place of exaltation, still we may not be proof against the more subtle and more dangerous snare of supposing that the memorials of our service can in any way contribute to the worship of God ; for this is using service as a means of self-exaltation, which thing must " become a snare to us and to our house."