MESSAGE FOR JUNE 16, 2002 FROM JUDGES 6:1-32

 

            This morning we continue our study in Judges as we meet the judge who aside from Samson is the best known of all the judges.  I am speaking of Gideon who is perhaps best known for his fleece.  Gideon is an intriguing character because as we’ll see he’s a walking contradiction.  At certain moments he seems to be a person of vibrant faith in Yahweh while at others he appears to be almost completely paganized.  He is a tragic but fascinating figure whom God undeniably uses in this dark period of biblical history.  His story begins in Judges chapter six and today we will work through verse 32.  Beginning with verse one the word of God says, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. 2Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. 3Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. 5They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. 6Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.

            Here we see God using the Midianites to chasten his people for their apostasy.  You may recall the Midianites were initially friendly to the Jews—Pharaoh exiled Moses to Midian and he married a Midianite woman.  But when we meet them later in Numbers 25 they are seducing the Jews to follow the Baal of Peor with all the attendant sexual immorality that involved and in fact one of Moses’ final acts was to declare a holy war on the Midianites in Numbers 31.  Here they return as God’s agents of discipline for His wayward people.  For seven years they act as raiding marauders who come down during the growing season after the Jews have planted their crops and plunder the Jews leaving them with little or no food.  The Jews are so fearful and demoralized by these raiders they resort to moving out of their exposed houses and instead live in caves in the hillsides as fugitives in their own land.

7When the Israelites cried to the Lord because of Midian, 8he sent them a prophet, who said, "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 9I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. 10I said to you, 'I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.' But you have not listened to me."   Notice again that God uses another prophet to rebuke the Israelites for their arrogant and ungrateful apostasy just as he used Deborah as his prophetic voice in chapter five.  This prophet declares that the least God could rightly expect from his people after all he had done for them was their exclusive devotion to him in their covenant relationship.  In fact, not only are they not exclusively devoted to Yahweh, they repeatedly turn away from him to worship other gods who have done nothing for them except seduce them into self destructive sin.  Notice in this the utter irrationality of sin.  There is no rational reason for these people to abandon Yahweh just as there is no rational reason why we sin.  When we commit a sin and after the fact consider the sheer idiocy of what we have done, we often respond something like, “I can’t believe I would do something that stupid.”  Those kinds of thoughts indicate a wrong understanding of sin.  We don’t sin because we have rationally thought through the issues and mistakenly concluded that committing the sin is the most reasonable course of action.  That’s not the way sin is in the life of a believer.  No, it’s much more primitive than that.  We sin because, like the Jews, our hearts are wicked and our flesh delights in rebelling against God. Sin isn’t a matter of poor judgment but of a sick heart.  We must be ruthlessly honest with God and ourselves about the true source of our sins if we are to get victory over them.

11The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior."  13"But sir," Gideon replied, "if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian."  Here are Gideon’s first words and they indicate an incredible ignorance of God and his character and we will see this continue throughout the narrative.  Gideon is apparently clueless as to the cause of the Jews misfortune, which has forced him to hide himself, threshing wheat in the unlikely venue of a wine press in order to try to protect the wheat from the Midianites.  In his ignorance Gideon blames God for their misfortune, unjustly accusing him of abandoning the Jews. 

Amazingly, God appears to ignore these foolish comments, 14The Lord turned to him and said, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" 15"But Lord," Gideon asked, "how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." 16The Lord answered, "I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together." Notice here the parallels in Gideon’s call experience with Moses and Jeremiah who both also feel unqualified when they are called.  Though there is a parallel here, we will soon see that Gideon is no Moses or Jeremiah.  17Gideon replied, "If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. 18Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you."  And the Lord said, "I will wait until you return." Moses had the burning bush as an authenticating sign from God and Gideon wants something from God to do the same for him.   19Gideon went in, prepared a young goat, and from an ephah of flour he made bread without yeast. Putting the meat in a basket and its broth in a pot, he brought them out and offered them to him under the oak.

20The angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth." And Gideon did so. 21With the tip of the staff that was in his hand, the angel of the Lord touched the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the Lord disappeared. 22When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he exclaimed, "Ah, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!" 23But the Lord said to him, "Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die." 24So Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it The Lord is Peace. To this day it stands in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. (The Abiezrites were a clan that was part of the tribe of Manasseh).  Gideon leaves the Angel goes and while he waits (!) prepares a meal typical of what a worshipper would offer to a god in the Ancient Near East.  There are 22 liters of flour in an Ephah—this was a god-sized meal and God dramatically consumes the meal and confirms to Gideon that indeed he had been communicating with a divine Being.

25That same night the Lord said to him, "Take the second bull from your father's herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father's altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. 26Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering." 27So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than in the daytime.  Gideon’s initial act is to tear down the root cause of why the Jews need deliverance in the first place.  Gideon goes to his own father’s house and begins cleansing the land of the pagan, spiritual defilement before he is commissioned to cleanse the pagan oppression from the land. 

28In the morning when the men of the town got up, there was Baal's altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar! 29They asked each other, "Who did this?" When they carefully investigated, they were told, "Gideon son of Joash did it." 30The men of the town demanded of Joash, "Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal's altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it." 31But Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, "Are you going to plead Baal's cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar." 32So that day they called Gideon "Jerub-Baal," saying, "Let Baal contend with him," because he broke down Baal's altar.

Gideon’s fear is justified here on a human level.  The idolatrous people are incensed at his act just as any idolater is when you begin tearing down their gods -- whether the god is an Asherah pole or a red convertible or a son or daughter or job or house or cabin.  If you really want to watch someone have a meltdown right before your eyes, whether they are Christian or unbeliever, threaten to take one of their idols away from them.  People don’t like it when you begin ripping their gods away and, just like these paganized Jews, when that happens to them they see the problem to be the idol destroyer rather than their own idolatrous hearts. These people are “fit to be tied” with Gideon and rather than see this for what it is, the just actions of a jealous God, they are set to kill Gideon.  If it were not for the brilliant way Joash reduces their position to absurdity by calling on Baal to defend his own honor, there is little doubt they would have tried to kill Gideon right here at the outset of his ministry.

         That’s the story up to this point.  Now, here are two biblical truths that come out of this story that are crucial for us to learn.  The first truth is simply:  Our God is an all wise and loving Father and King.  God is the King of Israel and their national Father and the way he deals with the Jews here is a powerful example of his wise and loving rule over his people.  Notice the sequence of his interactions with his people in response to their sin.  First, God allows the consequences of their actions to come upon them and the consequences of their actions in this case was seven years of brutal oppression by the Midianites and their allies.  The reason we can say this is a consequence and not just a punishment (which it was as well) is because as we have seen God has already dictated that if the people turn away from him to other gods, he will invoke the previously established curses of the covenant relationship upon them.  In this case those curses were the curse upon their food supply seen in Deuteronomy 28:18 and the reason and there was not enough food because (Deuteronomy 28:25,) “The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies…”

         Those were two of the pre-ordained covenant curses for their waywardness and the Israelites endure them for seven years as a divinely ordered consequence and punishment for their idolatry.  Think about what this must have been like.  Seven years of tilling your field and planting your crops and cultivating and seven years of feeding your livestock and cleaning up after them and delivering their litters.  And as harvest time draws near, you hear (for seven consecutive years) the approaching hoof beats of these camels ridden by these marauding Midianites who come and plunder and destroy your crops and drag off the best of the sheep and cattle.  Think about how that must have felt to go through that for seven consecutive years.  Can you imagine how helpless that would make you feel?  Think about moving out of your nice little house and relocating you and your small children into a dank, dark cave to protect yourselves from this hoard of human locusts that descends upon you and your family farm. 

         When you think about the terrible thing it would be to live that way, you wonder why on earth it took them seven years before they cried out to Yahweh.  You wonder if maybe the first six years they were crying out to Baal to rescue them.  So God allows the consequences of their actions to come upon them in the form of these covenant curses.  One application is--this is good parenting.  So often we want to bail out our kids when they get into trouble and that’s not biblical.  The prodigal father in Luke 15 doesn’t go chasing after his wayward son—he let’s his son suffer in the hog pit until he comes to himself and comes looking for him and God does the same thing here with the Jews.  He allows them to languish in misery until they turn to him.  But beyond the parenting lesson here, if we are living in a miserable situation for months and years it begs the question, are we under God’s discipline?  Is he trying to get our attention?  Now, we must reiterate that difficult circumstances do not always mean God is chastening us but Psalm 119:67 says, “Before I was afflicted (“afflicted” here means at the hand of God) I went astray, but now I obey your word.”  Four verses later in v.71 he says, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”  God’s discipline is intended to turn us wholeheartedly back to Him—to be radical for Him again.

As much as we marvel at the fact that it took seven years for the Jews to cry out to God in response to this, we must be careful to ask the question in times of difficulty—are my current circumstances the consequences of my past actions?  If Gideon would have asked that question he would not have been nearly so quick to blame God for difficulty.  When we encounter hardship is our first response to blame God like Gideon or is it to ask if we aren’t simply living out the consequences for our sinful choices?  If our first impulse is to blame God when things get tough we clearly have not learned the lesson this text and many other biblical texts teach us.  After the consequences have come home to roost and the people finally cry out to God, notice it is THEN that he sends the prophet to the people.  Second in this sequence is, God through the prophet comes and rebukes the people for their incredible arrogance at turning away from him after He had done everything for them.  The reason for this prophetic rebuke in this story is interesting because there is no call for repentance—no call for action.  The prophet merely delivers the charge against God’s people.  The reason for this is because God is about to deliver these people and he wants to clearly establish the fact through prophetic utterance that this deliverance will not come in response to ANYTHING these people have done.  The charges have been made, the condemnation is deserved, but instead of condemning the people he will deliver them ONLY because he is a good and gracious God. 

All the wondrous, miraculous acts of deliverance God will do under Gideon are done on behalf of a REBEL people and God wants them to know that. The point of the prophecy is very similar to a point God makes through Moses in Deuteronomy 9:4-9.  As we read this, notice the almost obnoxious level of repetition God uses to get his point emphatically across.  To prepare His people to take possession of the Promised Land God says through Moses, “After the Lord your God has driven them [the Canaanites] out before you, do not say to yourself, "The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. 5It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.

            Do you hear how God pours cold water on the people’s burning desire to claim credit for themselves, again and again reminding them that they are wicked and stiff-necked?  That’s so important for us to know.  When God delivers us out of a huge mess we are in or blesses us in extraordinary ways we MUST, MUST, MUST always remember there is nothing in us that has done this for us—not our smarts, not our cleverness, not our charm, not our good looks, not our family connections, not our money or influence (though God will use all those things at times.)  No.  The ONLY reason for God’s deliverance, his salvation, his blessing is because he is a good, gracious, loving God who “ does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities [Psalm 103:10].  We must understand this and teach this to our kids. 

            Notice the pattern of God’s work here.  After God disciplines the Jews for seven years and prophetically rebukes them, third…he delivers them.  What a good and gracious God we serve!  God is not only holy, he is loving and he bails us out of mess after mess because he is good, period.  We must never PRESUME on the mercy of God--we must never arrogantly assume the safety net is going to be there when we act recklessly.  That is sin.  But we MUST praise and thank Him because he is a good and kind and merciful God who repeatedly saves our skin and pardons our sin.  God is an all wise, gracious and loving Father and King.  The deliverance often comes, as it does later on for the Jews as we fight tooth and nail to be free, but God is the One who delivers us.

            A second crucial biblical truth from this story is God attacks sin at its roots to kill it.  It’s no accident that Gideon’s first mission of liberation is to address the nation’s root spiritual rebellion and not the military oppression of the Midianites.  The idolatrous hearts of the Jews was the fountain from which the Midianite marauders flowed and the oppression would not end until the Israelites put their spiritual house in order. God begins His attack on BAAL not on the Midianites and notice the attack begins in Gideon’s own back yard.  Evidently there was a prominent cult installation in this spot and many obviously gathered there to give honor to Baal.  Notice the in-your-face manner in which God attacks Baal.  He uses the wood of the Asherah pole to serve as fuel to be burned for a sacrifice of worship to Him.  This is the ultimate indignity for Baal—to be used as fuel for the fire of Yahweh’s worship.  God is ruthless about his glory.  He is Jehovah Qanna—the Jealous or impassioned God and we must never forget that.  It would have been incongruous for Gideon to deliver Israel from the consequences of their worship of Baal while still having a shrine to Baal sitting untouched in his own back yard.  The inconsistency would have been glaring and would have undermined the integrity of the whole mission.

            We must take a lesson from God here in how to clean our own spiritual houses.  If we are not experiencing the joy of the Lord, if there is an emptiness and superficiality to our walk with God—the root cause if we dig down deep enough is in almost all cases idolatry.  We have biblical basis for this in Romans chapter one.  Paul, in diagnosing the root sin of human depravity is in 1:21-23, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”  People refuse to acknowledge God, which defiles their hearts and minds and the result is, in their futility of mind and heart they worship—that is, put in first place in their lives, something created rather than the Creator. 

This brings the wrath of God on mankind and it also brings us into spiritual emptiness.  If you have lost your joy—if the zeal for God is gone then go to God and ask him what your idols are.  It may be something material—money, possessions.  It may be that you have come to value the praise and opinion of man more than you do God.  It’s often a fallen human being—perhaps a family member you have way too much hope in or concern for.  Idols can take a million different forms but if our spiritual lives have ebbed, the quickest, most efficient way to deal with that most serious of problems is to ask God to reveal your idols to you.  It may be that God has already put his finger on one of them and you, like the Israelites, “have not listened to him.”

            When God points out your idols, do what Gideon did--unceremoniously chop them down, burn them and give the pain their absence creates to God as a fire of sacrifice to Him.  As you discover, confront and destroy the idols in your life, you will find the oppression, the anxiety, the lack of joy and peace and zeal for God will melt away.  That sounds too simple but the most important truths are always the most simple. We need for it to be simple; we are spiritual SHEEP—a dull animal if there ever was one.  If you are just aimlessly coasting in your spiritual life and the fire is gone from your bones—burn your idols.  Give them to Jesus as he reveals them to you no matter how much short-term pain that will bring you.  If you do that He will liberate you from your own bondage to the spiritual plunderers of this world who seductively steal your joy, kill your zeal and work to destroy your soul.  May God give us the grace to know the truth, live the truth and enjoy the freedom in Christ truth brings.

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