MESSAGE FOR JUNE 30, 2002

(10th in a series from the book of Judges)

 

Read text:  Judges 7:15-8:21

            This week we continue to study the book of Judges and once again our spotlight will be on Gideon.  Last week, we saw that although God had clearly called Gideon to deliver the Jews from the oppressive Midianite hoards that had been plundering them, Gideon had trouble believing God would actually DO what he had promised.  God graciously stoops to Gideon’s unbelief by giving two miraculous signs involving a wool fleece.  Next, because God wants the victory over Midian to be so unmistakably miraculous that the Israelites will give him all the glory, He tells Gideon his 32,000-man army is much too large to fight the 135,000-man army of the Midianites.  So he has Gideon first cut his troop strength to 10,000 men and finally to a scant 300 men, leaving the Midianites with a 45-1 advantage.  About this time, Gideon’s faith again weakens so God graciously bolsters Gideon’s flagging faith by enabling him to overhear a conversation predicting God’s victory through him over the Midianites.  When we left him last time, Gideon’s faith had been renewed and he is ready to take his micro-army into combat against the daunting Midianite forces.

            The narrative we just read picks up the story from there and from this section of the story we discover that the further we go into this Gideon cycle, the more his frailty and sinfulness come sharply into focus.  This text and the next one in the sequence display Gideon’s inner motivations and they are not pretty.  Last week we saw Gideon to be a doubting, immature man.  The rest of the Gideon story shows us an even less flattering picture of this man.  The narrator tells the story in such a way as to highlight Gideon’s sinfulness.  From this text, we could legitimately say that Gideon was faithless, vindictive and deceptive, but his root problem runs much deeper and that is, he was essentially man-centered.  Gideon was not a God-centered man; he was a self-centered and man-centered man.  By that we mean, when you come right down to it, Gideon lived for Gideon.  At the end of the day, Gideon’s priority was not the glory of God, but the glory and satisfaction of Gideon.  He was man centered and this story powerfully testifies to that.

            Because of this, Gideon is for us a powerful negative example.  We must be able to see his man-centeredness and learn from it.  Where we find ourselves identifying with him (as I too frequently do) we must repent.  Where we find ourselves contrasting whatever degree of God-centeredness we have in our hearts with Gideon’s, we should rejoice because those areas reveal the grace of God at work in our lives.  Let’s look through this story and find two ways in which Gideon was man-centered rather than God-centered.  We see two truths about what a man-centered person looks like—or two symptoms of being man-centered.  The first symptom we see in Gideon and which we can identify in ourselves if we are man centered is: making ministry and/or our relationship with God as much about SELF as it is about God.  In this text we see at least two ways Gideon twists and distorts what Yahweh has called him to do for His glory and His purpose alone into being about Gideon.

            We see this first in verses 18-20 where Gideon makes this ministry about HIMSELF as he pursues personal GLORY using God’s provision.  God has evidently given Gideon this seemingly ridiculous battle plan of having three hundred men armed with only trumpets and glass covered torches surround the enemy camp. And Gideon explains to his troops that at the moment of the battle charge into the camp, they should scream out as their battle cry, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!”  We know from verse 20 this is precisely what they shouted when the moment of truth came and these Midianites were awakened and ran around hacking up each other like crazed bedlamites.  Verse 22 tells us that it was, “the LORD [who] caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords.”  This is obviously a supernatural sense of confusion that has come over these men because from everything in the narrative, we see that many if not most of the 120,000 Midianites who are killed are killed right here by EACH OTHER.  This gives new meaning to the term “friendly fire.”  These men aren’t accidentally lobbing missiles at someone five miles away; they are hacking up one another!  It’s transparent that this is a supernatural act of divine deliverance and that brings us back to this battle cry, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon.” 

            What’s THAT about?  What on earth prompts Gideon to think this ultimately has anything to do with Him?  Compare this battle cry with David’s battle cry as he faced Goliath in First Samuel 17.  Notice David’s focus in verses 45-47.  David said to the Philistine, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give all of you into our hands."  That’s David’s battle cry.  Where’s the focus there?  David is saying to the Philistines, “You think this is about swords and spears and javelins and a giant and a teenager, but this is really about the fact that there is a God in Israel.  And the reason you, Goliath are about to part with your head and the reason your army will soon be reduced to bird food and the reason God has orchestrated this incredible mismatch between you and me is because he wants everyone to know this is all about HIM!”

         That’s a battle cry!  That’s God-centered through and through.  That washes the man-centered filth out of your mouth you taste when by, sharp contrast you say, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!”  Pthew!  Isn’t it big of Gideon to give God first billing there!?  God doesn’t want FIRST billing--he wants EXCLUSIVE billing because He does ALL, every bit of the decisive work.  In this context if God doesn’t cause these Midianites to hack each other up, these 300 Jewish warriors would have been soaking the ground with their blood within minutes.  God did ALL the decisive work. Here’s what Gideon did—he led 300 men to blow their trumpets and break some glass.  How on earth is there an equal partnership here?  A sword for the LORD and for Gideon.”  Gideon here is using the power of God, given to defeat the Midianites for his own personal glory.  In these moments just before the big battle, when Gideon should have been in his most humble dependence upon God, he is shouting this nonsense about “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon.”  In these moments of God-dependent ministry, God wants us to be burning white-hot with zeal for His glory.  If our hearts are right in these contexts, in our mind we will be standing WAY behind the curtain—the spotlight is on GOD in those moments and Gideon’s response here utterly betrays a God-centered heart.  Rather than being greatly humbled by the opportunity to be used in such a magnificent, God-honoring way he distorts this into being about him.

         Likewise, in our lives and ministries there is a temptation to put us at the center.   The question is, “how can we know if we are ministering from a man-centered or God-centered heart?  Many of the answers to that question can be found in the prayer life of the believer.  That is the amount of prayer, the content of your prayers and the timing of your prayers.  Let’s first think about the AMOUNT of prayer.  If you have an active and vibrant prayer life that is often a good indicator you are living and ministering for God’s glory. If your prayer life is weak, then your life and ministry is almost certainly ultimately about you because if it were about God, you would be in frequent contact with him--“Do you want me to do this, Lord? How do you want me to do this, Lord?”  If when you minister you are not absolutely bathing everything in prayer, you don’t even need to wonder if it’s man-centered—it is; because it can’t be God-centered if its not God-dependent and if we are truly dependent upon God, we would pray.  If your life and ministry are all about God doing what only he can do for His glory—if that is your heart, you are going to be on your face before him as you live and minister—whether its about living with a pure heart, teaching Sunday school, meeting with someone to encourage or correct them or anything else.

It’s not just about the AMOUNT of prayer, however.  You can tell whether you are God-centered in your life and ministry by the CONTENT of your prayers. If, when you pray about your ministry, your number one petition and burden to pray sounds something like this, “Oh God, please don’t let me mess up—please help me to be really GOOD.” what is that probably saying about the focus of your concern?  Now, you can mask over a self-centered prayer with an addendum about God’s glory—“God, please help me not to make a fool of myself…for your glory.”  That’s playing games—that’s wallpapering over a self-centered heart with God centered words.  Finally, the TIMING of your prayers can be a good indicator of whether your heart is God-centered.  If when you minister, your prayers are limited to those moments just prior to your ministry, you are probably not burning with zeal for God’s glory.  If it’s mostly a last minute flare sent up to God—you may be just trying to calm your nerves.  Also, if when you are finished ministering you don’t go back and thank God profusely for his assistance in the ministry, are you God-centered?  If you minister in some way and God blesses it and you don’t spend time worshipping God in response to his grace in your life, was the ministry about God or about you?  If you don’t thank God and worship God in response to God’s work, was it really about God and his glory in your life?  If it were, why wouldn’t you glorify him by gratefully acknowledging his work in your life?  We must not do what Gideon did and use God’s provision for our own personal glory.

         A second symptom of Gideon’s man centeredness is seen as he pursues his own personal AGENDA in God’s name.  We see in verses 4-19 of chapter eight that Gideon’s personal agenda was taking personal vengeance on those who had mistreated him and God’s army. You’ll recall that Gideon takes his battle-weary men in pursuit of these Midianites kings Zebah and Zalmunna and comes to his fellow Israelites in Succoth in the territory of Gad and asks for bread.  The arrogant leaders of Succoth say to him in 8:6, “Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession?  Why should we give bread to your troops?  We will all agree that this was a severe breach of etiquette by the men of Succoth.  But after completing this mission Gideon responds to this by coming back and (literally) tearing the flesh of these flesh of these men—scourging them with briars and thorns—what a gracious response that was!   Likewise, when his countrymen at Peniel treat Gideon similarly, these men pay for their arrogance and inhospitality with their lives as Gideon not only tears down the defensive tower for the city but also kills all the men in the town, his fellow Jews.  As petty as these men were, they had done nothing to warrant capital punishment according to Mosaic Law. 

We know that Gideon was thinking only of himself and not God from 8:19.  Gideon questions Zebah and Zalmunna about the men they had killed at Tabor.  Now remember, these two were kings of Midian and were therefore to be executed under God’s command.  When Gideon finds out these two had killed his brothers he said in verse 19, “…As surely as the LORD lives, if you had spared their lives, I would not kill you.  The deciding factor in whether or not to kill these two Midianite kings was not the fact that God had told him to kill this Midianite enemy of God, but rather that these two had killed HIS brothers.  If they had not done this, Gideon makes no bones about the fact that he would have spared their lives and allowed these pagans to live against God’s word.  But because they had personally injured HIM by killing his brothers (forget about all the other Jews these two kings had ordered killed over the past seven years of Midianite oppression) he takes action.  Also, remember this army Gideon uses to extract his vengeance was not HIS army but God’s.  Yet he uses God’s army to carry out his own personal vendetta against his enemies, including his fellow Israelites. 

         Do you see the irony here when you contrast how Gideon treats his fellow Hebrews at Succoth and Peniel with how God had earlier treated Gideon in his sinfulness?  These men of Succoth and Peniel don’t trust him to deliver the goods and they refuse to go along with him until he proves himself?  Does that sound familiar?  Gideon doesn’t trust God to give him the victory over the enemy and he wants more proof of God’s power.  Does God rake his back with thorns?  Does he execute him?  NO!  He doesn’t condemn Gideon and pour out his judgment on him, even though he has a right to that for testing him with the fleece.  He is patient and benevolent and full of grace.  This story reminds us of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 who, after having been forgiven a debt of a million dollars goes and throttles some poor guy who owes him 20 bucks.  God had been so gracious to the previous arrogance of Gideon’s mistrust yet when he is given a dose of his own medicine, he responds like the thug he is. 

         This is a thoroughly man-centered attitude and we can see it so easily in ourselves.  When someone hurts you do you employ the truth found in Proverbs 19:11, “A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense?”  How many offenses do you choose to overlook—to just let run off like water off a duck’s back?  That’s very hard on our pride, which has a tremendous lust for being recompensed or apologized to for every unthinking thing someone else says or does to us, but it is a man-centered attitude.  It’s not about what brings God the most glory, but about making sure the offending party gives me what he owes ME.  There are times when confrontation with someone who has sinned against you is not only appropriate, it is mandated.  But there are so many of those small-scale remarks or misunderstandings that should just be overlooked and dropped at the feet of Jesus.

            More to the point, we too can try to use God to further our personal agendas.  We do this when someone asks us to do something and we tell them, “I just don’t feel God would have me do that at this time” even though we haven’t actually consulted God on the matter.  This also occurs when we go about doing something and tell others the reason we are doing it is because, “I think God is leading me this way” though we have never really spent serious time talking to God about it.  The truth of the matter is, we just like doing it and deceptively hide behind God when something threatens to take it away from us.  We may even make a pretense of praying about it, but our minds are made up long before we pray and the prayer is uttered, not to find God’s will on the matter, but to be able to “truthfully” say, “I’ve prayed about this and I feel God wants me to do this.”  This is making your ministry or your relationship with God about you more than it is about God.  It is the heart of an idolatrous, man-centered self-worshipper and we will see Gideon’s idolatrous heart even more fully in the text we will study for next time.

            The second symptom of a man-centered heart, which we see in Gideon, is leaning on the power of your personality and gifts instead of by faith trusting in God and the truth.  We see this in Gideon’s interaction with the men from the tribe of Ephraim.  Gideon employs the 300 troops to fight against the Midianites as God had commanded him and then, as they are retreating, rather than follow God’s counsel (which said NOTHING about calling on reinforcements) in 7:23-24 he calls on the men of the four neighboring tribes to help with the clean-up operation.  The men from one of these tribes, Ephraim capture the Midianite leaders Oreb and Zeeb and return with not only these leaders but also a complaint against Gideon. They say in 8:1, “Why have you treated us like this?  Why didn’t you call us when you went to fight Midian?”  And they sharply criticized Gideon.”  The Hebrew makes it even clearer—these guys were really ticked off with Gideon.  Ephraim didn’t like the idea of being snubbed and they were small and petty enough to bring up the matter.  Now we know the reason Gideon didn’t call on Ephraim or any of these tribes is because God told him he wanted only 300 troops to fight to preserve the glory of God in the eyes of the Jews.  But when the men of Ephraim call Gideon on the carpet for this, how does he respond?

            Well, fellas it’s like this—God wanted all the glory and so he personally told me to only bring 300 men into battle.  If I would have called you in, God’s glory would have been jeopardized and I would have been violating a direct command of Yahweh.”  That would have been a reasonable response, but instead of just telling the God-honoring truth, Gideon resorts to a slick, insincere bit of flattery.  Gideon shows himself here to be very charming fellow—able to talk his way out of any predicament and when he is pressed he immediately leans on his charming personality rather than simply tell the truth and trust in God.  “What have I accomplished compared to you?  Aren’t the gleanings of Ephraim’s grapes better than the full grape harvest of Abiezer? God gave Oreb and Zeeb, the Midianite leaders, into your hands.  What was I able to do compared to you?”  The fact that Gideon mentions God here only adds to the despicable nature of this.  He uses God’s name in vain here as part of his own flattery in the hopes of getting these Ephraimites off his back. 

            This isn’t being gracious, its being cowardly—its sacrificing the truth on the altar of personal safety and gives us yet another example of Gideon’s lack of faith in God to deliver him from those who oppose him.  Instead of trusting God to vindicate him and telling these men the truth, he leans on what has doubtless gotten him out of several scrapes in the past, his charming personality.  Do you ever do that?  Instead of telling someone the hard truth, you instead choose to schmooze your way past an uncomfortable situation.  We must dare not mistake this for being “gracious” or “winsome.”  The truth is sometimes hard to say and hard to hear.  That’s a fact in a fallen world and if we need to tell someone the truth we should tell them with gentleness and humility, but never skate around the issue with flattery or charm or some other strength of our personality.

            Perhaps the most dangerous thing about leaning on your own natural strengths instead of God is that, as in this story, it often works!  Gideon’s flattery got the dogs away from him.  At this, their resentment subsided.”  The fact that something accomplishes what we desire in NO way means it is the right thing to do.  Those words sound all but foreign in a culture where pragmatism reigns and the question is often not, “Is God being honored in this?” but is rather, “will this do what we want or what we think God wants?”  Make no mistake; if you are really good at schmoozing or charming or batting your eyelashes you will get what you want a whole lot of the time.  This works.  If you are really good at persuading or organizing a program or logically justifying a position you’ve taken, you will often get your way.  Now there is nothing necessarily wrong with these personal strengths—some of them are given by God.  But if we are LEANING ON THOSE instead of God and the truth, we will be a failure in God’s eyes every time even, if we succeed in the world’s or even the church’s eyes.  George McDonald said, “Anything done apart from God is destined to either fail miserably or succeed more miserably.”  There are many, many very impressive, miserable successes in the church today and the church applauds them.  But if they are done strictly in the power of the flesh—the power of personality or organization or information they are wood, hay and stubble and they will burn like dry kindling in the judgment.  If this Gideon story tells us anything it is this—God will never share his glory with man, no matter how gifted or resourceful or charming they may be.  When Gideon’s back is up against the wall, he places his trust in flattery and not the God who has already done such incredible things for him and his army.  This is man-centered and when we see this in ourselves we must confess it and repent of it.

             Do we trust in our own abilities or God—how God-centered are we?  This text gives us a great test—a test Gideon dismally failed.  That is, when someone pins you to the wall and gets in your face about something you have said or done, how do you respond?  When your flesh is crying to you—“get me out of this situation as fast as possible and I don’t care how you do it” what do you do?  Do we tell the truth (even if it means admitting a personal failure) or do we wimp out and lean on our ability to argue or defend or charm or evade or any number of other tactics that often “work” but reveal a man-centered heart?

          Gideon’s main problem was not that he was prideful or vindictive or prayerless or deceptive.  All those were symptoms that flowed out of a heart that was for Gideon and not God.  Who is your heart for?  Is it self centered or God-centered?  As we have said before, keep the main thing the main thing and the main thing is: are you living for God or for yourself?  A life that is truly lived in response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—sending him to live a perfect life and die on a cross for our sins so that we might be acceptable in his sight will be a God-centered life.  A life lived in response to this world around us and what is happening here will be a man-centered or self-centered life.  Are you living in response to God’s precious gift to you or are you living for self?  May God give us the grace to pray every morning before we get out of bed, God, I want today to be all about you—totally centered around you” and may we live that out in our daily lives.

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