MESSAGE FOR JUNE 23, 2002 FROM JUDGES 6:33-7:15

(Ninth in a series from the book of Judges)

This week we continue our treatment of God’s gracious working in the period of the Judges and more particularly, God’s work in Israel through this man named Gideon.  Last week we saw that God had once again disciplined his nation for rebelliously turning away from Him, their covenant God to serve the Canaanite gods.  God chastises and humbles his people for this by allowing this nation of marauding Midianites to for seven years viciously descend upon the Jews and plunder their food supply and their livestock.  Through the Midianites God causes his people to live in horrible oppression as they fearfully abandon the comfort of their homes and retreat to the safer confines of mountain caves.  After seven years of this horrible oppression, God’s people finally cry out to God and He raises up a deliverer in the person of Gideon.  You’ll recall that even though Gideon is only a judge in Israel, God calls him to that ministry with all the fanfare and miraculous manifestation of his calls to other much more significant Old Testament figures like Moses and the prophets.

The angel of the LORD personally appears to him and tells him in words intended to embolden and encourage, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”  God doesn’t speak that to Moses or the prophets, but those are the first words God personally speaks to Gideon.  Gideon however needs even more confirmation than simply a supernatural manifestation of God’s presence so he prepares a meal and God miraculously consumes the meal with a dazzling discharge of pyrotechnic power and the food Gideon has prepared is vaporized in the consuming fire of God.  God’s first charge to Gideon is to tear down the pagan altar located in his father’s back yard and after building another altar to Yahweh, he is to use the wood of an Asherah pole he cuts down to fuel the fire of a sacrifice to Yahweh.  Gideon does indeed do this under the cover of darkness and the paganized, rebellious Jews respond by screaming for his head.  God intervenes in the person of Joash, Gideon’s father who tells these hotheaded idolaters that Baal can defend himself; they are not commissioned to stand up for Baal’s honor.

That’s where we left off last week and we heard today’s text earlier.  There is so much richness in this familiar story but one of the misconception about this text we must clear up is that Gideon’s actions in putting out the fleece serve as an example to us as a way of discovering God’s will.  That’s the way this text is commonly understood.  If God is leading you to do something then we have a right to expect him to confirm this to us by the use of a sign or a “fleece.”  To take that concept from this text is to misunderstand the message as the author presented it.  Dan Block writes with great insight about this text and says, “Contrary to popular interpretation, this text has nothing to do with discovering or determining the will of God.  The divine will is perfectly clear in his [Gideon’s] mind.  Gideon’s problem is that with his limited experience with God he cannot believe that God always fulfills his word.”  This is not an issue of how to find God’s will.  This is about unbelief.

The great irony surrounding the popular understanding of this text is that what SHOULD be a lesson in the truth that God expects His people to walk by faith in Him, has instead been wrongly understood as granting permission to us for unbelief and for seeking after signs.  Jesus rebukes the people in his home region of Galilee for this in John 4:48, “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders…you will never believe.”  That’s an indictment on Gideon!  Do you hear how ironic the popular interpretation is of Gideon’s fleece?  So often we see Gideon’s fleece to give us permission, even encouragement to seek after signs when in fact Jesus rebukes that attitude as unbelief.

Here are two truths from the text to help us see that God expects his people to live by faith in Him.  The first reason why Gideon’s call for a “fleece” is a sign of unbelief rather than confirming God’s will is one we already alluded to. That is God had already painstakingly communicated his will to Gideon.  God had personally appeared to him in a manner much more fitting a Moses or an Ezekiel.  The angel of the Lord pays a personal visit to this man and greets him in a manner clearly intended to inspire the highest level of confidence, calling him a “mighty warrior.  Also, God had already graciously given him one authenticating sign of his integrity by supernaturally consuming the meal he had prepared.  What’s more, when Gideon did act in at least some measure of faith by destroying the pagan worship center in his father’s back yard, God showed his faithfulness by using his father to totally diffuse a serious threat to his life.  God had personally appeared to him; clearly communicated his will to him and had shown him his power to protect him as he by faith obeyed that will for his life.

Another reason why the request for the fleece is without doubt unbelief is found in verse 39.  Gideon has already wrung the water out of the fleece from the first test—All Gideon has asked for was that the fleece have dew on it (God dramatized his faithfulness by totally drenching it.)  After that, Gideon says to God, “Do not be angry with me.  Let me make just one more request.  Allow me one more test with the fleece.  This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew.”  Gideon is not only hesitant to lay out this fleece, he is fearful.  Why is he fearful?  Because he knows this request is so unnecessary as to cause God to possibly respond to it in anger.  If this was something Gideon felt perfectly justified in requesting he would not have begun his request with a petition for God not to be angry with him.  But far more important than that from this verse is one very important word Gideon uses to refer to what this fleece laying really was.  Gideon says, “Allow me one more test with the fleece.” 

The second reason why this is unbelief on Gideon’s part is because what Gideon is really doing here is testing God.  The crucial word in verse 39 is this word translated “test.”  This word translates a Hebrew word that means—“to verify someone’s or something’s virtue or integrity.”  This is how this word is almost always used in the Old Testament.  In 1 Samuel 17:39 when a young David tells King Saul he will fight Goliath and Saul offers him his sword and armor, David refuses the offer because he says, and “I have not TESTED them.”  David had not tested these arms to see if they were suitable for battle.”  In 1 Kings 10:1 the Queen of Sheba, when she had “heard about the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with difficult questions.” She wanted to know just how wise Solomon really was and the way to do that was to test him [same word].  When a young Daniel balked at eating the unclean food of King Nebuchadnezzar but instead opted for a vegetarian diet, he said to his overseer, “Please test [same word] your servant for ten days, and let us be given some vegetable to eat and water to drink.” 

This word translated “test” is frequently used of God’s action toward his people.  In Genesis 22 God “tested” Abraham (same Hebrew word) by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  God “tested” the Jews in the wilderness according to Exodus 16:4 by daily raining bread from heaven in the wilderness to see if they would follow his instructions. Judges 2:22 says one reason why God allowed these pagan nations to remain in the midst of the Jews was because, “I will use them to test [same word] Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did.”  God is regularly testing his people in the Old Testament so they will see whether they are devoted to Him.  It’s perfectly fine for GOD to test his people for their faithfulness or some other virtue, but it is almost never appropriate for God’s people to test HIM when he has already told them what he wants them to do as he had Gideon here.  When Satan in Matthew chapter four tempts Jesus by challenging him to throw himself down from the temple our Lord quotes Deuteronomy 6:16.  Jesus answered him, “It is written:  Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  [same Hebrew word in 6:16] Satan wants Jesus to test God to see if he will really protect his Son by his angels and Jesus rejects this from the scriptures.

Gideon in 6:39 uses this same word “test” in relation to this fleece.  He is testing God to verify his faithfulness.  He is asking for a sign to confirm God’s integrity. God has every right to “test” us and he often does but we should almost never feel freedom to test him.  We know from Matthew four that that can be a satanic thing to do yet Gideon does it.  In the light of the rest of scripture we must not allow the fact that God graciously grants this request for an additional sign of his faithfulness as an indication that he BLESSES this.  God does what he does because he knows the person he is working with to be a very faith-deprived individual in Gideon and he graciously condescends to his character flaw.  I have no doubt that God at times grants people of little faith fleeces but that’s a testimony to his grace and patience, it is in no way a biblical model for determining the will of God.  We know Gideon is acting in unbelief here because he already knew what he was supposed to do and because he was sinfully testing God.

The reason why we have had such a hard time realizing this (I must confess I have laid fleeces before God) is because we really don’t in any biblically-informed way realize how much God expects his people to be full of faith in Him.  In our day and age, we so readily excuse and ignore the sin of unbelief in our lives.  A brief scan of the biblical record shows that God expects his people to be amazingly full of faith in Him.  We see this over and over again in both the Old and New Testaments.  Do you remember when the angel Gabriel met an elderly priest named Zechariah in the holy of holies and told him his aging wife Elizabeth would bear him a son?  In response to that remarkable statement, “Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?  I am old and my wife is well along in years.”  That’s sounds an awful lot like Gideon doesn’t it?  Like Gideon, Zechariah had heard a dramatic and clear statement from God about his will and like Gideon he wants something more.  You’ll recall Gabriel is thoroughly repulsed by his unbelief. He says,  “…I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.”  And unlike Gideon, Zechariah is chastised for his unbelief as God makes him mute for the next nine months.  God expects his people to be full of faith.

In Numbers 14 when the spies come back and 10 of them give a bad report Caleb hears this unbelief and says in verse nine, “Only do not rebel against the LORD.  And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up.  Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us.  Do not be afraid of them.”  Caleb calls their unbelief NOT a miscalculation, not a misinterpretation of the data, not a mistake in judgment—this is rebellion against God!!  And just in case we wonder whether Caleb here represents God’s opinion on this matter, two verses later in verse 11, “The LORD said to Moses, “How long with these people treat me with contempt?  How long with they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?”  Make no mistake, unbelief to God is a willful refusal to believe and he sees it as treating him “with contempt.  This word for “contempt” is also translated “to spurn” and “to despise.”  Unbelief is spurning and despising God and as such, God is justifiably grieved by it.

We see this attitude about faith in the ministry of Jesus.  In Matthew chapter eight, we see Jesus and the disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a furious storm comes up and these seasoned fishermen are in fear of their lives.  They wake a sleeping Jesus and he says, “Boy, this storm is a real a whopper, guys—glad you woke me up.” NO!  He says in Matthew 8:26, “…You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”  In the midst of this horrendous storm their fear is, according to Jesus an utterly inappropriate response—faith is what is called for, not fear.  Do you hear the tremendously high expectation Jesus has for the faith of the disciples?  We see this again in Matthew 14:31.  Jesus is out walking on the water and Peter, in what appears to us to be an act of remarkable faith, decides he will join Christ in his defiance of the law of gravity and he miraculously takes a few steps on top of the water.  But then Peter noticed the wind—a natural enough response to us and he begins to sink.  Matthew 14:31 says, “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.”  Does he respond to Peter’s attempt by saying “that was a great effort--‘atta boy, Peter?”  NO!  He says, “You of little faith…why did you doubt?”  A man who has just taken a few steps on top of water is questioned about his lack of faith.  It’s clear that Jesus’ expectation of Peter was that he continue to walk on the water and not doubt.

One reason we so easily misinterpret the story of Gideon’s fleece is because we ourselves are so dismally bad at trusting God, we naturally assume it wasn’t all that wrong of Gideon to get confirmation of God’s capacity to deliver him.  If we were in that situation, we too might just need this so it must be ok for Gideon.  The only problem with that reasoning is it assumes we are people of biblical faith and most of us are not.  The truth we have seen from these other texts is that the Bible teaches that God’s people be people who can trust God for miracles and when they don’t they are rebelling against God, treating him with contempt.  One of the great gaps of understanding present in the church today is the absence of the conviction that we must confess as sin not only sins if commission, but we must also confess as sin sins of omission like a lack of joy or faith.  For instance, if I am not living in the joy of the Lord, that is not simply a regrettable state of spiritual affairs for me because 1 Thessalonians 5:16 commands us, “Be joyful always.”  Joylessness is a sin we need to repent of.  Likewise, not trusting in God is not simply a weakness in our spiritual resume, according to the bible it is an act of rebellion against God and we must repent of it by God’s grace.

It’s not just the sins of commissions that we must grieve before God, it is sins of omission that grieve God and near the top of that list for North American believers is the sin of faithlessness.  One of the most sobering texts in the entire bible to me is Luke 18:8.  Jesus is speaking about the judgment and the events surrounding the second coming.  We know from Matthew 24 this will be a time of great trial and tribulation for God’s people and Jesus asks this chilling question in Luke 18:8, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  He’s not wondering whether he will be able to find people who go to church and believe sound doctrine.  In the context of the second coming, he’s talking about people who according to Matthew 24, “will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by the nations because of me.”  He’s talking about the time when “many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other”—a time when “Because of the increase of wickedness the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”  Into that context requiring that kind of faith, Jesus asks, “Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth?”  And to be honest when I look at my own mostly faithless life and the faithlessness of the church I understand why he asks that question and it is very sobering.  God expects his people to be full of faith and he is grieved by the sin of unbelief.  Gideon’s fleece bears testimony to his lack of faith when we look at it through biblically informed eyes.

A second truth that comes out of this is our God is zealous for his glory and comprehensive in his sovereignty.  After God graciously condescends to show Gideon a sign in the fleece incident, he then challenges him in Judges 7:2.  The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands.  In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, “Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.”  Notice that, even though God knows Gideon is not strong of faith, his glory is so important to him that he is willing to push this faith-impaired man to the very brink.  We know from 8:10 Gideon would be facing an army of at least 135,000 Midianites and we know from verse three that his initial fighting force consisted of 32,000 men.  That means from the beginning the Jews were outnumbered about 4-1.  We also know from last week’s text that this Hebrew army is dismally ill equipped to fight.  But God is so zealous for his glory he wants to protect against the Jews from boasting even in this heavy underdog status.  When the 22,000 men who trembled left that left 10,000 Hebrew warriors leaving them with a 13-1 disadvantage.  But God is so zealous that HE ALONE be given the glory; he cuts their number again.  He tells Gideon that only those who assume the unlikely drinking posture of lapping water from their hands like a dog will be allowed to fight and that final number of remaining warriors is 300 which leaves the final ratio of disadvantage to 45-1.  Now that the ratio is 45-1, God knows that not even these arrogant Jews will think about taking his credit away from him when he miraculously wins the battle.

This is a powerful reminder of God’s zeal for his glory and when we read this we feel awed by his zeal.  This is such a thrilling story because God is so unmistakably going to have to work miracles.  But when God begins to work in our own lives to make US such huge underdogs so that if he doesn’t do a miracle all is lost, we get very uncomfortable.  When WE are facing these kind of odds in a venture God has led us into, we forget all about how important God’s glory is to him and are strongly tempted to slink away in unbelief.  We SAY, “wouldn’t it be great for God to be glorified so powerfully in our lives.”  But when God actually orchestrates our situations in such a way that the ONLY way we can prevail in a situation is for it to be unmistakably God, we hate that.  By God’s grace we must share God’s zeal for his glory and focus NOT on the odds against us on a human level, but instead rejoice in the fact that when we are given a humanly impossible task, God’s glory can be uniquely manifest!  In light of our purpose in life—“to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” we should welcome those contexts rather than shy away from them.

Beyond that, notice the utter comprehensiveness of God’s sovereignty here in this section of the text as well as a later section.  If you’ve ever wondered just how much God knows and controls the future, small details of your life, look no further than this story.  He knows which of these men will bend down to get a drink versus those who will scoop water with their hands and drink like a dog.  That indicates a truly exhaustive level of foreknowledge.  If there were a less predictable, less likely fact for someone to know about 10,000 individual men than whether or not they lap with their tongues like a dog when they drink water, I would like to hear it.  That’s right up there with predicting whether a certain woman will dry her nail polish by blowing on them or waving them around.  God knows that too!  Do you hear how God is in everything—how intense his sovereign control is?  The hairs of our head are numbered—not a single sparrow falls to the ground apart from his knowledge.  What an awesome God we serve.

Another example of this is in 7:10-15.  God knows that Gideon is at the end of his faith and so he tells him to “…go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp." So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. 12The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.  13Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. "I had a dream," he was saying. "A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed."  14His friend responded, "This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands." When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped God. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, "Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands."

         This text must give a huge headache to the Open Theists who don’t believe God exhaustively knows the future and/or controls human events.  Do you hear in this event just how comprehensive God’s control of these events must be in order for them to have occurred and have the result he intended?  First, God has to give this pagan warrior this bizarre dream about a loaf of barley bread plowing down a tent.  Then, he has to cause Gideon and Purah to be in precisely the right location and at the precise moment in time in order to overhear this strange conversation. He then has to give the Midianite man who is listening a rather unlikely interpretation of it.  When you think about it, this was not a very logical take on this dream, was it?  The Jews have been under the boot of Midian for seven years and this Midianite warrior has a dream about a loaf of bread rolling into their camp and collapsing one tent.  In light of the recent history of Midianite oppression over these horribly dismally armed Hebrews, his was NOT the most obvious interpretation of the dream.  One tent is flattened by a piece of tumbling pastry and “naturally” that means this:  the entire Midianite camp will be destroyed by the Jews and more specifically by the sword of Gideon, son of Joash?  Of course, how could I have missed that?!  Yet that is the immediate conclusion this pagan draws from this dream and Gideon is right there taking it all in.

         The only reasonable explanation for this turn of events and the energizing effect they had on Gideon is that God was sovereignly controlling every aspect of this scene, down to the very words uttered in this conversation and the thoughts behind them. And when you think about it, this brings us full circle back to our first point.  That is this:  the reason God sees our unbelief as contempt for him is because when we doubt him we are doubting the all-sovereign, all future-knowing, all-powerful Lord of the universe.  Doubting God is in a completely different class than doubting anything or anyone else.  The reason we never have any justification to doubt God is precisely because he regularly in the Bible and in life displays the kind of absolute sovereignty he shows here in this dream sequence in Judges seven.  To doubt whether God will fulfill his promises or cause his decrees to be accomplished in our lives and the life of this church is nothing less than to accuse him of being less than He is—the all-glorious, totally sovereign Lord of all creation. —He who superintends everything down to the thoughts and words of people who don’t even acknowledge his existence.  The logical, rational question is:  why would anyone ever doubt this glorious God we serve?  But as we were reminded last week, sin—like the sin of unbelief is not about logic and reason, it’s about rebellious hearts and a wicked flesh that delights to turn away from God.

         So where are we this morning in relation to all this?  Are you a person who is regularly stepping out in faith for God, expecting him to do miracles?  We’re not all going to be in the position of Gideon but we are all called to trust God and that means a willingness regularly to attempt things that, if He doesn’t intervene, you will fall flat on your face.  We who live in self-reliant, entrepreneurial, technology-enabled America are not at all good at this.  But the word of God is clear—“without faith it is impossible to please God”[Hebrews11:6].  God is about the business of being glorified in our lives and crucial to that aim is our willingness to follow him into circumstances where we are forced to trust in Him so that he can show himself strong and sufficient in our lives.  This is a radical thing that our flesh hates more than anything else but God expects it.  And as we have seen because he is the all powerful, all sufficient, all knowing God he is, he is totally, absolutely, unequivocally worthy of our trust.  May God give us the grace to know God, treasure God and trust God for His glory.

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