A Chapter from the Book:
"The Discipline of Surrender : Biblical Images of Discipleship"
By Douglas D. Webster
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.í"
So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.
But the Lord said to Gideon,
"There are still too many men. Take them down to the water,
and I will sift them for youÖ"
The Lord said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will
Save you and give the Midianites into your handsÖ"
The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars.
Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands
The trumpets they were to blow, the shouted,
"A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!"Ö
When the three hundred trumpets sounded,
The Lord caused the [Midianites] throughout the camp to
turn on each other with their swords.
JUDGES 7:2-4, 7, 20 -22
Godís strategy for success is different from ours. The world tells us to believe in ourselves and expect great things, but God call us to trust in him and take up our cross. The world promotes pride, but God instills humility. Motivational speakers inspire ambition, but spiritual directors encourage prayer. We feel our egos need all the help they can get, but God strips them clean. We add up our achievements, but God subtracts them one by one. Welcome to the discipline of surrender.
Reading the book of Judges is like entering a foreign world. Names and places are unfamiliar, and the customs and traditions seem crude and barbaric. High school history doesnít cover the Midianites and Baal worship. In the grand sweep of political history the Canaanite tribal conflicts in 1200 B.C. have little significance. Historians estimate that there were about 180 years between Joshua and King Saul (c. 1200 to 1020 B.C.). Scenes from the movie Braveheart come to mind. Or you might think of the era of Genghis Khan and the great Mongol invasions of Asia. Life was violent and cruel. It was a harsh and bloody world, a Darwinian world where the "survival of the fittest" was the order of the day. The only rationale preventing "ethnic cleansing" was the fact that dead people do not become slaves and raise crops. It was more profitable to dominate and oppress people and gain from their hard labor than to slaughter them. The powerful ruled the weak. Oppressors let the poor people plant crops, and then at harvest time they invaded the land to ravage it. This is what the Midianites did to Israel for seven years straight. Israel lived on the brink of annihilation.
The Gideon narrative begins by describing Israelís horrible oppression. Every year around harvest time the marauding Midianites descended of the Israelites, and the Israelites took refuge in mountain caves as their enemies ravaged the land. What was especially impressive were the Midianitesí numbers. They were like "swarms of locusts," so many, in fact, the "it was impossible to count the men and their camels." It appears that the Israelites had to be pushed to this extreme crisis before they were willing to cry out to God. "Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried to the Lord for help" (Judg 6:5-6)
The covenant of Godís salvation seemed precarious, like a drowning victim about to go under for the last time. The patriarchs were few in number but strong in character. God established his covenant through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Josephís relationship with God was exemplary and testified to the fact the God would keep his covenant and preserve the solidarity of Israel in a foreign and hostile culture. Four hundred years after Joseph dies, the exodus from Egyptian bondage, let by Moses, proved to be a turning point in the history of Godís chosen people. Joshua, Mosesí successor, is remembered for his victories. He took Jericho, Caleb was victorious at Hebron, and Israel finally occupied the Promised Land.
But following Joshuaís death Israelís history soured. Their spiritual resolve melted, and they looked more like their Canaanite neighbors that the covenant children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The refrain "the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord" introduces nearly every section of the book of Judges (2:11; 3:7, 12: 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). It was sad commentary on the people of God then; and down through the ages of salvation history many professing Christians have earned the same commentary.
At this low point, when Israel was infiltrated from within by pagan practices and oppressed from without by powerful enemies, God intervened in two ways. He sent a prophet with a message and raised up a judge with a mission. He sent a prophet with a message and raised up a judge with a mission. The message might have been a stinging indictment-because Israel deserved it-but instead it was a call for understanding. God offered an explanation, not a tongue-lashing. We donít know how the message was received, but we know that Gideon responded as though he hadnít heard it.
The Lord appeared to Gideon and said, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior." And Gideon replied, "But sir, 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, ĎDid not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?í But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian" (Judg 6:12-13). Talk about attitude! He blamed God for what had happened. Gideon refused to admit that the Israelites had brought it upon themselves.
Should we see any parallels here between our sorry state and our lack of obedience? Are we ready to challenge Godís faithfulness when we have unfaithful? We reap what we sow. As the apostle Paul wrote, "The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Gal 6:14). We want to be taken seriously by the Lord, but sometimes it is good that the Lord doesnít take us so seriously! In spite of the provocative nature of Gideonís cynical criticism, the Lord simply ignored it and proceeded with his agenda. "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midianís hand. Am I not sending you?" (Judg 6:14). Once again Gideon countered with a but. "But Lord, how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family" (Judg 6:15). Gideonís objection recalls Mosesí protest, but the Lord continued, "I will be with you and you shall crush Midian as though it were a single man" (Judg 6:16JB).
What follows is reminiscent of Godís dealings with the patriarchs and with Moses. God gave Gideon a "burning bush" type experience (Judg 6:20-22). God made himself so real to Gideon the Gideon felt like he experienced nothing less that a face to face encounter with the living God. He was inspired to build an altar and worship. He called it "The Lord is Peace" (Judg 6:24). Then he went out, at Godís command, and destroyed his fatherís altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole, a shrine to the fertility goddess. The town reacted by calling for his death, but Gideonís father intervened. "Let Baal fight his own battles" was his fatherís sentiment. "If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar" (Judg 6:31). There is a hint in his fatherís reaction that maybe Israel was ready to be done with nature gods and fertility cults. On that day they gave Gideon a new name, Jerub-Baal, which means "let Baal contend with him." Not a bad name for one who was about to lead Israel out of bondage. God took a relatively inconsequential, cynical and fearful Israelite and gave him courage, assurance and responsibility. This is what the Lord will do for us if we allow him. This is what the Lord has done for many of us already. He has found us suspicious and cynical, and he has turned us around and given us purpose and meaning.
As the story builds and the showdown looms between the Israelites and the multitude of Midianites, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet (a ramís horn), summoning his people to follow him and fight the Midianites (Judg 6:34). Yet even then Gideon continued to need reassurance that the Lord was on his side. He tested Godís work with a wool fleece, not once but twice. The first time he wanted the fleece wet and the ground dry, and then he wanted the ground wet and the fleece dry. Each time God accommodated Gideonís request and proved himself. But just how much God was on his side was going to be proven in a way Gideon never anticipated. Gideon tested God, but God tested Gideon more. God wanted to remove not only Gideonís doubt but Israelís doubt. And even though he did it in a shocking way, we should not be surprised. It is the strategy of the cross.
At the heart of the Gideon story is a radical battle plan. Israel was pitted against the camp of Midian. For seven years the hordes of Midian had descended on Israel, killing, plundering and ravaging the land. Now in the eighth year Israel finally had a leader in Gideon, who assembled an army of thirty-two thousand men at the spring of Harod. It was there that 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." (Judg 7:2-3)
Twenty-two thousand men got up and left, leaving ten thousand to fight the Midianites. We can only imagine the consternation, let alone fear, at such a drastic reduction. We have no idea how Gideon explained troop reduction to those who remained. It defied all logic. Who builds an army by subtraction? But God was not finished. The Lord said to Gideon:
"There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. If I say, "This one shall go with you,í he shall go; but if I say, ĎThis one shall not go with you,í he shall not go."
So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink." Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The Lord said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place." So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites to their tents but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. (Judg 7:408)
If we try to discover some hidden military logic to this drastic reduction from thirty-two thousand to three hundred, we miss the point. We can discard all those theories that dwell on the difference between kneeling down to drink and bending over to drink. The object was not to pare down the ranks to a crack fighting outfit. This was not a special forces operation or an elite commando raid. No, not at all. The Lord wanted it obvious to Israel that they couldnít possibly win on their own.
Have you ever been tempted to reduce the ranks of the church down to those who really mean business with Godóhumble, mature, growing Christians? The thought can be tempting, but every effort to weed out the weak ends in failure. When it comes to building the church and proclaiming the kingdom, God does not seem to concentrate spiritual strength as much as disperse it. Judging from the Gideon precedent, Godís purpose may be to manifest his strength in our weakness. The church in China is a prime example of this strategy. In the 1940s it looked like communism was going to wipe out the church. Many missionaries were sent home, some who stayed were killed, multitudes of Chinese believers suffered, and the church was severely persecuted, But far from dying, the church has grown significantly and has evidenced the powerful blessing of God.
Godís strategy with Gideon recalls Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses, all of whom were outnumbered and would have been completely overpowered apart from God. It is consistent with how God worked with Elijah against the prophets of Baal, and with David against the Philistine Goliath. Godís strategy has been the same down through the ages: "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit," says the Lord Almighty (Zech 4:6).
The same strategy is carried through to the cross.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of GodÖBrothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised thingsóand the things that are notóto nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor 1:18, 26-29)
All prospects of self-salvation are removed. Our deliverance comes from the Lord and the Lord alone. As the prophet proclaimed:
"Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight," declares the Lord. (Jer 9:23-24)
The key phrase in the entire Gideon narrative is the line "in order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her." This still holds true today. It is most definitely true when it comes to our salvation. We know we cannot save ourselves. It is also true when it comes to fulfilling the Great Commission and experiencing church growth. The question is whether we will cooperate with the Lord and put aside our human agendas of success and accept the diving principle of subtraction. The discipline of surrender runs against our natural inclination toward self-preservation and self-achievement. We are drawn to institutional pride, statistical goals, self-congratulatory rewards and motivational hype; but what is often missing is real worship, authentic Christ-centered spirituality and the principle of the cross. It is not enough to be wee-intentioned, eager and enthusiastic for the work of the Lord. The issue is whether we can wait upon God and trust him. The look of self-oriented success concerns God because the feelings of pride are sure to follow.
What happens when God takes away a sword and replaces it with a trumpet? You remember the story. Gideon assembled the three hundred who remained. He instructed them to follow his lead. At around 10 p.m. Gideon blew his trumpet, smashed his clay jar, held high a lighted torch and shouted, "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon." All three hundred Israelites surrounding the perimeter of the Midianite camp did the same thing. The reaction in the enemy camp was panic. Intelligence reports had indicated that the Israelites had no heart for battle. For several days they had been seen dispersing. Only a few hundred remained, and they were absolutely no threat to the huge army assembled in the valley. However, the enemy was not prepared for the element of surprise. Three hundred trumpet blasts, three hundred smashed jars, three hundred lit torches and three hundred shouts, "For the Lord and for Gideon," and all pandemonium broke out. Suddenly the valley, packed with troops and herds of camels, erupted. They turned on one another with their swords and fled.
The victory was the Lordís for sure, but Gideonís as well. The Lord called for action, took the initiative and gained the victory, but Gideon was right there as a faithful follower. The discipline of surrender did not lessen Gideonís involvement, it increased it. The Lordís action is at the heart of this history, but Gideon is in the story in a big way. He is no longer cynical but confident; no longer doubting but trusting; no longer fearful but faithful. To that end may Gideonís example inspire us. Too often the Lord finds us blowing our own horn! May Gideonís trumpet be a reminder that the battle is the Lordís, and he will win the victory. Whenever you hear an ordinary trumpet, remember that Gideonís God is your God.
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