MESSAGE FOR JULY 21, 2002 FROM JUDGES 8:22-32
This morning, we resume our study of the Old Testament book of Judges, picking up where we left off last time nearing the end of the story of Gideon. As we have seen in our study, when you read the story of Gideon and his exploits in the book of Judges and you are careful in your interpretation of the events of his ministry, you might just find yourself experiencing some inward tension. The tension in the Gideon account comes from two truths that both clearly come out of the story but which in some way can seem to be at odds with one another. One truth is that God clearly uses Gideon in some very impressive ways. According to 8:35, Gideon did much good for Israel. His military exploits show God’s miraculous intervention in ways that rank with the most exciting conquests in all of Old Testament history. The story we looked at earlier where he led 300 men against a Midianite army of 135,000 is an amazing testimony of God’s hand resting squarely on this man. There is no doubt God chose to greatly use this man. The other truth, which is just as clear in these stories about Gideon is that he is horribly flawed man. All of God’s servants are frail and flawed but Gideon is a man of especially glaring and troubling weaknesses. In spite of God’s dramatic call and powerful assurances of his power and provision to him, Gideon consistently doubts God. He needs sign after sign of God’s faithfulness.
The last account we examined in chapters seven and eight reveal a man who is at root a self-centered man. Gideon simply wasn’t living to please God. Gideon was living to please and glorify Gideon. We saw that he pursued his own personal glory and agenda in God’s name and when he was pushed against the wall, Gideon’s first impulse was not to turn to God for help, but to lean on his own personal charm. The narrative we will look at this week, which brings the life of Gideon to a close, sets these two radically different truths side by side and this apparent tension is very strong. We can try to resolve this tension in at least three ways. We can do what most people do who read these stories and we can minimize Gideon’s weaknesses and make him out to be a war hero with a few inexplicable warts. Second, we can deny the fact that God could possibly use anyone as sinful as Gideon. Either one of those two options will reduce our tension but the fatal problem with those two is that they are not true. The text clearly teaches that God actually does use his horribly flawed man. And so the third option is to hold these truths in tension and from that tension discover something utterly profound about God.
As we move into this last section of Gideon’s life, let’s set the stage. You’ll remember that Gideon, thanks to several miracles God performs, leads his small army to victory over the Midianites. He then recruits men from other surrounding Israelite tribes to help with the clean up operation to finish off the remaining Midianites. After a lengthy chase he finally catches up to two Midianite kings and kills them and takes for himself their royal ornaments from the necks of their camels. This completes the victory and Gideon finds himself in the position of a venerated war hero in Israel. That leads us to today’s text that begins with verse 22 of chapter eight.
The word of God says, “The Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us--you, your son and your grandson--because you have saved us out of the hand of Midian." 23But Gideon told them, "I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you." 24And he said, "I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder." (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.) 25They answered, "We'll be glad to give them." So they spread out a garment, and each man threw a ring from his plunder onto it. 26The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels' necks. 27Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family. 28Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon's lifetime, the land enjoyed peace forty years. 29Jerub-Baal son of Joash went back home to live. 30He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. 31His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. 32Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.”
This text not only reveals something about Gideon and about God, it also shows the spiritual condition of the rest of God’s people whom Gideon led. Let’s briefly see just how spiritually blind these Jews were at this time in salvation history. Notice in verse 22 the people tell Gideon that they want him to rule over them followed by his son and then his grandson. They want to establish Gideon as their king and they want to serve under a dynasty founded by Gideon for the foreseeable future. The way these people go about “appointing” Gideon to be their king is much more reminiscent of how pagan Ancient Near Eastern nations appointed kings than God’s prescribed method in Deuteronomy 17.
In Deuteronomy 17, God stipulates that he alone as the true King of Israel will anoint the King of His people so these paganized Jews trample all over God’s ordained procedure. From this we see that the apostasy of the Jews not only includes their desire to worship the Baals—its not only religious influence these pagans have had on the Jews—they also want a king like the pagan nations have and they use Canaanite procedures to go about getting themselves one in the person of Gideon. This should be an example to us. We may think the world has not had much effect on us because we don’t get drunk and go to dirty movies and use bad language, but a much more insidious indication of the influence a pagan world has had on us is—do we want what the world wants? Do we drool over the palatial house or the foreign sports car or the designer dress or the perfectly chiseled body? Those are worldly desires. The pagan influences we have to be the most careful of are the influences the world is having on our appetites and desires. Do we want to keep up with the Jones’ or are we content with the house and car and clothing and body God has given us? These Jews wanted a king so they could be like their pagan neighbors. Do we want things so we can be like this pagan world around us?
We see the spiritual blindness of the Jews most glaringly in their rationale for wanting Gideon as their king. Verse 22 says it is, “because you saved us out of the hand of Midian.” WHO saved the Jews from the 135,000-man army of the Midianites? Was it Gideon as he commanded those 300 men? The fact that these people give Gideon the credit should be no surprise to us because if you’ll remember, Gideon has already prepared them to understand the battle this way because back in 7:18 he had given his men as their war cry, “for the Lord and for Gideon.” Gideon should have made it clear from the outset that any victory would be totally and absolutely dependent upon the Lord, but instead he injected himself into the picture. That’s all these paganized men needed, to do the fleshly thing here and give credit to Gideon as opposed to God.
Now, let’s look at the two main truths that emerge from this story. The first is the conclusive evidence of Gideon’s pagan heart. The second is the revelation of God’s unspeakable grace. First, let’s see in this story the final and conclusive evidence of Gideon’s pagan heart. This final account in the narrative brings out the truth that although Gideon had torn down the idol in his father’s back yard, he never bothered to rip the idol out of his own heart. He is in many ways a pagan just like those people who want to make him king.
In response to this claim I can hear the objection, “Aren’t you being a little hard on poor old Gideon in light of what he says in verse 23?” It is true that when these Jews come to him and ask him to be their king Gideon says, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.” That is a very good profession and it shows us that Gideon understands the theology of Kingship in Israel. That is, that God was the only rightful King over Israel and for any other person to assume that role at this point was to usurp the role God had reserved for Himself. Gideon’s got it right in his profession. But as we have seen before with Gideon, you must look not so much at what he says, but what he does. An old bible teacher used to say, “What you believe you do—all the rest is just religious talk.” As we’ll see from the things Gideon DOES after his profession, Gideon was just full of religious talk. Notice from the rest of the story two proofs of Gideon’s pagan heart.
The first truth is very brief but very condemning of Gideon and is this; Gideon never corrects the Jews twisted conception of their victory over the Midianites. In verse 22 the Israelites say, “Rule over us…because YOU have saved us out of the hand of Midian.” The silence from Gideon in response to that ridiculous statement is deafening. Here are the Jews giving Gideon all the credit for a military miracle that he knew full well was totally from God yet when these people tell him it was HIM who saved them from the Midianites his silence communicates his tacit agreement with this absurd statement. His response SHOULD have been, “What are you talking about “I saved you out of the hand of Midian. God did the work, I just led the charge—this was God’s fight from beginning to end.” Gideon’s willingness to try to steal God’s glory indicates his heart is pagan. His verbal refusal to take the throne of Israel is betrayed here in his selfish attempt to seize the kingly glory from Yahweh.
The second proof that Gideon’s heart is pagan is: Gideon, after refusing an official kingdom in Israel establishes an unofficial monarchy with himself on the throne. The story reveals this in at least four places. First, Gideon asks for a portion of the spoils of war. Right after Gideon professes to refuse the throne in verse 23 he says in verse 24, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” Later in verse 26 we read, “the weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels…” That equals about 43 pounds of gold. Forty-three pounds of gold represents a lot of money today but back then it was an incredible sum. The scholars tell us that in the ancient near east victorious warriors gave a portion of the spoils to THEIR KING as a sign of their submission to him. That means that while Gideon had verbally renounced the authority of the king, here he receives a very nice perk these men would have known rightly belonged to kings. Also, 43 pounds of gold would have been an amount consistent with a king’s treasury so although Gideon here may have sworn off the throne verbally, he is now the proud owner of a king-sized net worth.
A second way Gideon establishes an unofficial monarchy in Israel is seen in the second half of verse 26 where we read that along with the gold, Gideon also kept as plunder from the Midianites, “…the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian…the chains that were on the camels’ necks.” Gideon makes himself the unofficial king of Israel by surrounding himself with symbols of regality. Why does a person keep royal ornaments, royal pendants, royal chains and a royal wardrobe—purple was and still is a color symbolic of royalty? Why does a person possess and surround themselves with accoutrements symbolizing royalty unless of course he sees himself in that light and wants others to see him in that light? This stuff should have been melted down and burned—they symbolized pagan kings who had been crushed by Yahweh. What is Gideon doing with these pagan articles, if not using them to promote himself as some sort of unofficial, royal figure?
A third and perhaps the most disgusting way Gideon set himself up as unofficial king is in verse 27. “Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” We know that an ephod was a vest-like garment worn by priests and Gideon has the gold shaped in the form of an ephod. What we don’t know is what kind of graven image the ephod was draped over. We know it was pagan because the Jews played the harlot with it, worshipping it as a god and Gideon and his family also shared in this practice. First and foremost this reveals that Gideon, in spite of all that God had done for him and in spite of all his words to the contrary was significantly paganized. His religious was clearly a satanic blend of Baal worship and Judaism. We know from verse 33 that when he died what restraint he did manage to bring to the thirst for paganism from his fellow Jews was lost and they went completely and exclusively to pagan worship. But Gideon here paves the way for the total apostasy by having this clearly pagan symbol brought to his hometown.
This occurrence shows Gideon’s desire for kingly influence in Israel because the scholars tell us that part of the pagan king’s responsibility was to be the official sponsor of the national religion among his people. When Gideon makes the ephod out of his gold, he not only preserves his royal treasury, he fulfills his royal responsibility to set up the pagan national religion. We know this is what happens because the text says in verse 27 “ALL ISRAEL prostituted themselves by worshipping it [the ephod] there.” Notwithstanding his profession to the contrary, Gideon IS the unofficial, undeclared king of Israel at this point. The author goes to some pains to show that.
A final way we see this is found in verse 29-31. Verse 29 literally says, “Then Jerubabaal the son of Joash went and lived in his own house.” That is a curious verse—of course he went to live in his own house—where else was he going to live? The context gives us a good clue as to how best to interpret this verse. The Hebrew verb translated “lived” can also meant, “to sit [on a throne].” So what is probably being said here is that Gideon established his home in Ophrah as his royal dwelling place. This is supported by verse 30 where we read that he has 70 sons (who knows how many daughters he had) and many wives. For a private citizen to have the number of wives necessary to birth a man 70 sons would have been extraordinary. This was the family structure of a king. So we see that Gideon also betrays his profession that the LORD is king of Israel because he establishes a palace and family fit for a king. Not only did he have many wives and children he also had at least one concubine. A concubine was a woman who existed to provide sexual pleasure for the man and to bear him more children. Also, verse 31 says the concubine was from Shechem. Shechem was at this point still held by the Canaanites so this woman who bore Gideon a son who would eventually become the heir to this sham dynasty is a pagan. Gideon again reveals his pagan heart by the fact that he is fathering the children of a pagan concubine.
This is, to say the least, a less than flattering picture of Gideon. As we have followed his life we have seen the author progressively reveal that Gideon is a faithless pagan with an orthodox profession but a heart full of idolatry and selfish ambition. And that’s why the incredible statement in verse 28 can bring tension to our minds. Right smack in the middle of this section revealing the idolatrous heart of the Jews and their leader Gideon we read this breath-taking pronouncement of God’s grace. “Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon’s lifetime, the land enjoyed peace forty years.” Think about this. Even though the people gave all the credit for their victory to this slick, unbelieving Gideon, even though Gideon had set him self up as the de facto king usurping God’s rightful place in the eyes of the people. Even though Gideon had used God’s power for his own personal agenda and glory—even with all that going on, God gives these ungrateful, idolatrous people with their spiritually schizophrenic leader 40 years of peace.
Do you feel the tension there? In our minds this disgusting episode should end with words like, “Therefore God verily smote Gideon and his household and He caused the Midianites to remain in the land to oppress them until his rebellious people repented of their idolatries.” That would relieve the tension for us—that would be a just conclusion to this episode, but instead of doing that, God delivers his idolatrous children from the hands of their oppressors and he uses a self-seeking, glory-pilfering, throne-usurping idolater to accomplish his plan. Its crystal clear at this point that the people of God in this whole process never really wanted God. They just wanted what God could do for them—they just wanted to be free. And we know that is what was in their hearts because when God sets them free, they turn away from him. How ungrateful can you get?
What does this story tell us about God? Does it tell us that he really doesn’t care all that much whether his people are ungrateful idolaters? Oh no. That would be a disastrously wrong conclusion to draw from this narrative. What it tells us is that our God is a God of immeasurable grace and he blesses us NOT on the basis of our performance or our “faithfulness” but on the basis of the fact that he is good. The second main truth in this story is the revelation of God’s unspeakable grace. Yesterday at the C.E. parent/teacher training held here we were reminded of the truth of Psalm 145:9. “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. Four verses later it says, “The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made.” and four verses later, “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.” The key word there that is sounds so amazing to us and is the truth that deflates every bit of the tension from this story is the word “all.” God is good and loving to ALL he has made. Even those who hate him, even those who like these Israelites with whom he had entered into covenant and who then consistently turn their backs on him. He’s good (up to a certain point) to Osama bin Laden. “He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Eventually, his enemies taste his horrific wrath but for years and years on this earth they may drink deeply of his goodness and love. That may bother us a bit but it shouldn’t. Because this same God is also good and loving to us for whom he sent his only Son to suffer and die even though we shamelessly sin against him.
Now, we can respond to that truth about God by trying to take advantage of him, but that carries catastrophic consequences—“do not be deceived: a man reaps what he sows.” Or we can look at this mind-numbing grace of God and respond the way He intends for us to. That is, to internalize this goodness of God and how wonderful he is and how his saving love for us is not dependent upon our performance and bow our heads and humble ourselves and whisper in contrite tones, “Whatever you want from me God, I am Yours. You write the check, you fill in the amount—I’ll sign it --whatever you want—money, time, energy. Because I can do nothing less for a God like you.” That’s the correct response to the grace of God. This is what Paul is thinking of when he says in Romans 2:4, “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?” God’s kindness—his grace and mercy to us, if we understand it and believe it will lead us NOT to try to take advantage of it, but will stimulate us to live lives marked by repentance as an expression of our humble love and gratitude toward this God who blows up all our boxes with his goodness and grace.
The Jews of this time period and Gideon never got this. As far as we know he died in his idolatries and as we’ll see next week, his legacy ended up being a sad and gruesome one. Justice does always eventually come in God’s economy but how are we going to live in response to this gracious, long-suffering God? May God give us the grace to respond with willing a grateful hearts devoted exclusively to him for his glory.
Page last modified on 7/29/2002
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