By J.R. Miller
Gideon is one of the most interesting characters of his time. The days were troublous for the people of Israel. It was their own fault, too; they had sinned--and thus had lost God's protection and help. Our first glimpse of Gideon shows us the condition of the country. He was beating out wheat in a hidden wine-press, instead of in the midst of an open field. He was trying to keep out of sight of the Midianites, for if any of them saw him threshing out his scant harvest--they would steal it all.
One day the angel of the Lord was seen sitting under a tree in Ophrah. Whether Gideon recognized his visitor as a heavenly being is not clearly apparent. If he did he certainly was not startled by his coming to him as usually people were when they saw an angel. Gideon talked to this messenger very naturally. Perhaps the angel wore only a human form, although later he is spoken of as the Lord Himself. God is always coming to us, though we know it not. William Cullen Bryant said he thought of everyone he met--as an angel in disguise. We may go further and think of everyone who comes to us--as God Himself. It would change the meaning of life and give a new sacredness to all our meetings with others, if we did this.
The angel began his conversation with Gideon with a cheerful greeting: "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior." Gideon was a modest and plain man who probably never had thought of himself as having any special ability. The best men are least aware of their own greatness. No wonder Gideon was surprised and abashed by the greeting. God always sees the best that is in us. He recognizes the power that slumbers in our brain and heart. He knew the grandeur of character that was waiting for development in this sturdy farmer. The greeting of the angel was not, therefore, an idle compliment. Gideon was a mighty man of valor and the Lord was indeed with him.
Yet evidently Gideon was not happy that day. He was not in a cheerful mood. The troubles in the country had disquieted him. The angel's words, "The Lord is with you," did not seem to describe his condition. "Oh, my Lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?" There did not appear to be much evidence of God's presence or favor in the condition of things then prevalent in the country. The people were suffering grievously from the enemies who were doing them such harm. It seemed to Gideon that if God really was the friend of His people--He would show His friendship in a more kindly way. He did not seem to be present with His people--as He had been in past days. "Where are all His wondrous works which our fathers told us of? . .. Now the Lord has cast us off, and delivered us into the hand of Midian." This same question is often heard in our own days. If God is our Father, why do we have to suffer so much? Why do we have so many losses and disappointments?
Instead of answering his complaint, the angel spoke to Gideon a startling word, calling him to become his people's deliverer. "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" This is ofttimes the Divine answer to our fears and questionings concerning our troubles. Instead of fretting over our disasters, it is ours to set to work to repair them. God does not want us to yield to what is hard or discouraging in our experiences--but to pray for courage and strength to rebuild what has been torn down.
It is a Divine Being that now speaks, and Gideon is awed. He shrinks from the call that has come to him. It did not seem to him possible that he should deliver his people. "Oh, Lord, how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." Gideon's humility was commendable--but we need never fear that God has made any mistake--when He calls us to a duty. It may seem too great for our powers--but it is not really so. He who calls us knows what we can do. Besides, He never sends one alone on any errand. "Surely I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together."
Now we see Gideon at the head of his men, encamped by the spring of Harod, about to meet the Midianite army in battle. "The people that are with you are too many," said the Lord to Gideon. If with such a force they were victorious, they would boast of their own valor, and would not give God the glory. One of the greatest dangers to which poor, vain human nature is exposed--is self-conceit. God takes many ways of making us humble, for there is no human feeling that is more repugnant to Him, than pride. Sometimes He allows us to be defeated--that is the way He cured Peter of his stubborn self-confidence. He let him fall into the hands of Satan to be sorely beaten. Peter never boasted again of his own strength and his ability to stand. After that, he was one of the humblest of men, and because he was humble--he was strong. No doubt many a defeat comes in our lives because we are too strong. God cannot allow us to succeed, because if we did, with our own self-sufficiency, we would give Him no praise--but would keep to ourselves all the honor.
Many times God pursues precisely the same course with us, that he did with Gideon's army. He weakens our strength until we are reduced to absolute powerlessness, and then He gives us the victory. Jacob was lamed before he overcame the wrestler and got his new name. But his lameness was his strength. It meant less of Jacob and more of God. The true secret of spiritual strength, is a consciousness of weakness on our own part, leading to full dependence on the Divine help. When we get to this point--God is ready to give us victory.
It is interesting to study the way God thinned out Gideon's army. Though He wanted only a few men to fight the battle, He wanted the best. He would not show His power by giving the victory to cowardice and inefficiency. So the first thing He bade Gideon to do, was to weed out the incompetent. There were twenty thousand cowards in that army, men who were willing to confess that they were afraid, and these were sent home. They would have been no strength, only weakness and peril. One coward--may make a whole battalion into cowards. The ten thousand men would be stronger alone--than the thirty thousand with these timid ones still remaining.
Many a church would be stronger--if it were weeded out just as Gideon's army was. Its weakness lies in its great numbers, not because numbers necessarily weaken--but because there are so many half-hearted people on the roll, people who are not ready to make sacrifices, to endure suffering and loss. One irresolute and vacillating man--may make a score of other men irresolute and of little use as witnesses for Christ and the truth. Men of courage are needed, and there would be new strength, in sifting out the ranks. There are too many in our churches who would withdraw if they could from the army of the Lord, in the time when it is no longer easy to be faithful. They have lost their hearty interest, if they ever had any, and are indifferent, cold, without the spirit of true consecration, mere hangers-on.
A great commander tells the story of one of his men in battle. In the hottest of the fight this soldier saw a frightened rabbit running with all its might through the bushes. "I would run, too," the man cried, "but for my character." He would not be branded as a coward, and so for his name--he stood at his post. It ought to make us brave in our loyalty to duty--to remember that only by being faithful unto death, can we win the crown of life. Even their character was not enough to keep Gideon's men from confessing that they were afraid to go into battle.
It was an amazing thing that the Lord said to Gideon after twenty-two thousand cowards had gone away. Certainly the army was small enough now--ten thousand to meet a countless army in battle. But the Lord said: "The people are yet too many." There were two reasons for this further sifting. God would remove the last ground for boasting from the people themselves. Then He would still farther sift the quality of the men, rejecting many who were brave enough--but lacked other elements of the highest soldierly character. God ofttimes thins the ranks of His Church, when he wants some great work done.
Christ kept the number of His disciples small, by continually presenting the hard demands of the service He required of His followers. He declared that he who would come after Him must take up His cross. He talked about the baptism with which He had been baptized, and asked those who proposed to follow Him if they were able to accept that. When ardent, enthusiastic men came, offering to follow Him wherever He would lead them--Jesus spoke of His homelessness: the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head--and asked: "Can you accept that for your worldly expectation?" So it came at the last, that he had only twelve apostles (and one of these turned traitor and sent Him to His cross), and a little handful of faithful women who clung to Him with loyal love. With that small holy band He conquered the world.
The method of sifting the men in this second reduction, was remarkable and very suggestive. "Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there." The men themselves did not know that they were being tested. God is always trying us, trying us when we do not dream that He is. He never entrusts anything into the hands of anyone--until He knows that the person will do it well. So He tries His servants beforehand in such ways--as will reveal their fitness or unfitness for the duties required. These trials are being made when we are doing our simplest duties, when we are quietly moving about in the common walks of life.
Here, the way the men drank water from the brook was the test of their fitness for the work of conquering the Midianites. It seemed to make the smallest difference in the world how a soldier might drink; yet it was a difference which settled the question of fitness or unfitness for the great work before the army, because it revealed an essential quality of true soldierliness.
It is in just such little ways and in just such matters of everyday and commonplace conduct and manner, that God is always testing us and deciding whether we are fit or unfit for the greater works for which He wants men. By the way a boy lives at home, by the way he treats his parents, by the way he performs his duties at school, by the spirit he shows on the playground, by the diligence which he displays in the store or the office where he is first employed--by the way he acts in all these relations and duties, the question is being settled to what greater work or responsibilities the Lord will call him in after days.
In a large business institution at the last New Year, one young man missed his promotion because the timekeeper's records showed that he had been coming in a few minutes late a good many mornings. He was one of the best young men in the place, did excellent work, had ability and skill, was trustworthy and faithful--but he had fallen into the habit of coming in frequently two or three or five minutes behind time, and it cost him his annual advance. He was angry, and talked about unfairness--but he had only himself to blame.
The testing goes on almost automatically in all life. A young girl, by the way she deports herself in her girlhood, at home, in school, at play, in society, and in all her experiences, is settling the place in life which she will fill in the days of womanhood and strength. God is always trying us and selecting the men and the women He wants for the important duties of life--from those who stand the test well. This should make us careful how we live and act every moment, for we cannot know when these tests are being made, or what future honor and glory may depend on the way we do the simplest and most commonplace thing today.
Little things test character, little things done unconsciously. Character is revealed in the way people walk, in their handwriting, in their handshaking, and in all the familiar actions of everyday life. A coarse jest--tells of coarseness in the nature. Thoughtlessness anywhere, shows a character lacking in noble quality. Carelessness in little things, reveals a careless man.
There are boys with a careless habit. They think they need not always do their best. It will be a small matter if they omit one duty, if they trifle just one hour, if they waste one day. Yet the trail of the one neglect--may follow them to the end.