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Gideon - When a Few Make a Majority

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The book of Hebrews lists Gideon among the heroes of faith in Israel’s history (Hebrews 11:32 Hebrews 11:32And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:
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). The exploits of men like Gideon, who lived more than 3,000 years ago, are recorded because “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4 Romans 15:4For whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
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).

The incident in his life most familiar to Bible readers was a spiritual exercise in overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Gideon understood the ultimate importance and safety of having God as man’s Ruler.

In the book of Judges we see that God was preparing Gideon for battle against numerically overwhelming odds: “You have 32,000 soldiers, Gideon, and that’s far too many to do battle with the Midianites. I don’t want anyone to think you’ll win the coming battle by your own might. Tell your army that, if any among them are fearful, they are free to go” (Judges 7:2-3 Judges 7:2-3 2 And the LORD said to Gideon, The people that are with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, My own hand has saved me. 3 Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.
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, paraphrased).

Gideon did as God instructed. He offered his men an honorable discharge from their duties, and 22,000 quickly disappeared over the horizon, headed for home.

Gideon looked around. One moment he thought he could count on 32,000 Israelite volunteers, the next he was left with only 10,000. Considering that the Midianite army numbered at least 135,000 (Judges 8:10 Judges 8:10Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and their hosts with them, about fifteen thousand men, all that were left of all the hosts of the children of the east: for there fell an hundred and twenty thousand men that drew sword.
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), Gideon’s diminished force might have been cause for concern.

Gideon’s shrinking army

Gideon was in for another shock. God told him: “Gideon, you still have too many men to fight the Midianites. Take your remaining men down to the water and let them drink. There’s more sorting to do, and those I select will do battle. But the rest, like those before them, should also return home” (Judges 7:4 Judges 7:4And the LORD said to Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down to the water, and I will try them for you there: and it shall be, that of whom I say to you, This shall go with you, the same shall go with you; and of whomsoever I say to you, This shall not go with you, the same shall not go.
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, paraphrased).

Ten thousand Israelites welcomed a cool, refreshing drink of water. The overwhelming majority-9,700-got down on their knees, placed their mouths to the water and drank. A relative handful, 300, crouched and scooped water to their mouths with their hands.

These 300, God said, would make up his army (Judges 7:4-8 Judges 7:4-8 4 And the LORD said to Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down to the water, and I will try them for you there: and it shall be, that of whom I say to you, This shall go with you, the same shall go with you; and of whomsoever I say to you, This shall not go with you, the same shall not go. 5 So he brought down the people to the water: and the LORD said to Gideon, Every one that laps of the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, him shall you set by himself; likewise every one that bows down on his knees to drink. 6 And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down on their knees to drink water. 7 And the LORD said to Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand: and let all the other people go every man to his place. 8 So the people took victuals in their hand, and their trumpets: and he sent all the rest of Israel every man to his tent, and retained those three hundred men: and the host of Midian was beneath him in the valley.
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). God hand-picked Gideon’s army: 300 men whose most distinguishing characteristic was not in proving themselves as mighty men of valor, but that they drank water from a position different from the others.

From 32,000 to 300, Gideon’s army became only a fraction of what it had been. Surely God knew what He was doing, didn’t He? Gideon might have wondered whether they all might be better off going home. Had God forgotten that Gideon’s little band of soldiers would face an experienced army outnumbering them 450 to one? From all appearances, this situation made no sense.

God explained to Gideon His purpose for allowing him such a small army to battle the physically and numerically superior Midianites. He was not about to allow Israel to be able to boast that her own strength had saved her (Judges 7:2 Judges 7:2And the LORD said to Gideon, The people that are with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, My own hand has saved me.
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; 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; 28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, has God chosen, yes, and things which are not, to bring to nothing things that are: 29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.
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). That honor would go to God alone. But God would work through Gideon.

What led up to this fateful situation?

Least likely to succeed

Among the judges who ruled Israel, Gideon was one of the most faithful and brave. Yet, when God appointed him to save Israel from the Midianites, his comments at the time showed that he considered himself the least likely to succeed: “O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15 Judges 6:15And he said to him, Oh my Lord, with which shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.
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). Yet God’s angel spoke to the contrary: “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor!” (Judges 6:12 Judges 6:12And the angel of the LORD appeared to him, and said to him, The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor.
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).

Is this a biblical oxymoron? Was God blind to Gideon’s fear and uncertainty? Not really. Looking to the future, God saw Gideon’s character after God inspired, bolstered and worked with him. God already viewed Gideon as a mighty warrior, although Gideon saw himself as a mere man with all his attendant weaknesses. He was, after all, hiding in the winepress while threshing his crop of wheat for fear of the Midianites when the angel appeared to him (Judges 6:11 Judges 6:11And there came an angel of the LORD, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained to Joash the Abiezrite: and his son Gideon threshed wheat by the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites.
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).

Haven’t we found ourselves in similar situations?

Many centuries later the apostle Paul wrote that God is more concerned with our spiritual strength than our physical power. Paul illustrated this with his own example, revealing that he had requested that God heal him from a physical debilitation. However, God’s response to Paul showed that He would not heal him; it would ultimately be better for Paul and others that he not be healed.

“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in [your human] weakness’ … For when I am weak, then I am [spiritually] strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 9 And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
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). God understands the human heart and mind, that it is all too easy for us to take credit for what is really God’s doing. When we recognize that, God can use us more effectively, as both Paul and Gideon learned.

As far as Gideon was concerned, he was the least likely to become successful, especially as a warrior trying to lead a quarreling and bickering nation of Israelites.

Proofs of God’s intentions

Gideon requested proof from God that He would be with him. Gideon cooked meat and bread and presented them to God’s messenger. The angel told Gideon to place them on a rock, out of which fire devoured the food.

Emboldened by this event, Gideon sent messengers to the surrounding Israelite tribes to raise an army against the Midianites. But apparently he soon had second thoughts and desired more reassurance from God. God patiently allowed Gideon to choose his own proofs of God’s promises.

Gideon first requested that, when he left the wool of a sheep out overnight on the threshing floor, God would allow the dew to moisten only the wool, leaving the surrounding ground dry. God did as Gideon requested. But, just to make sure that God had performed the miracle, Gideon made another request of God-this one, in Gideon’s mind, more difficult. He asked God to reverse the miracle and allow the dew to moisten only the surrounding ground, leaving the wool dry.

Gideon knew the wool would absorb the dew more easily than the hard ground of the threshing floor, making this an even greater miracle. Again God did as Gideon requested (Judges 6:39-40 Judges 6:39-40 39 And Gideon said to God, Let not your anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray you, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew. 40 And God did so that night: for it was dry on the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.
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). Gideon was convinced. This was proof enough for him to trust in God’s calling.

The enemy delivered

Gideon must have taken heart when 32,000 fellow Israelites answered his call for help against the Midianites. Then he was likely bewildered as God scaled down the army from 32,000 to 10,000, then further to only 300.

God reassured Gideon: “By the three hundred men who lapped I will save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand” (Judges 7:7 Judges 7:7And the LORD said to Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand: and let all the other people go every man to his place.
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). To reassure Gideon further, God told him to go with his servant to the enemy camp at night to “hear what they say; and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp” (Judges 7:9-11 Judges 7:9-11 9 And it came to pass the same night, that the LORD said to him, Arise, get you down to the host; for I have delivered it into your hand. 10 But if you fear to go down, go you with Phurah your servant down to the host: 11 And you shall hear what they say; and afterward shall your hands be strengthened to go down to the host. Then went he down with Phurah his servant to the outside of the armed men that were in the host.
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).

A formidable sight appeared to Gideon’s small army, for “the Midianites and Amalekites, all the people of the East, were lying in the valley as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude” (Judges 7:12 Judges 7:12And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the children of the east lay along in the valley like grasshoppers for multitude; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the sea side for multitude.
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).

But Gideon and Purah, his servant, did as God instructed. They stealthily made their way to the edge of the enemy encampment, where they overheard an amazing exchange between two soldiers. “I have had a dream,” said one. “To my surprise, a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian; it came to a tent and struck it so that it fell and overturned, and the tent collapsed.” His companion responded, “This is nothing else but the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel! Into his hand God has delivered Midian and the whole camp” (Judges 7:13-14 Judges 7:13-14 13 And when Gideon was come, behold, there was a man that told a dream to his fellow, and said, Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, see, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came to a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along. 14 And his fellow answered and said, This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand has God delivered Midian, and all the host.
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).

God had inspired these men to inform Gideon precisely of what God would do for him. “And so it was, when Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, that he worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel, and said, ‘Arise, for the Lord has delivered the camp of Midian into your hand’ ” (Judges 7:15 Judges 7:15And it was so, when Gideon heard the telling of the dream, and the interpretation thereof, that he worshipped, and returned into the host of Israel, and said, Arise; for the LORD has delivered into your hand the host of Midian.
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).

The plan was simple but brilliant: Gideon divided the 300 men into three groups, equipped each of the men with a trumpet and a pitcher covering a lighted torch. He instructed them, “When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then you also blow the trumpets on every side of the whole camp, and say, ‘The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!’” (Judges 7:18 Judges 7:18When I blow with a trumpet, I and all that are with me, then blow you the trumpets also on every side of all the camp, and say, The sword of the LORD, and of Gideon.
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).

When they were in place surrounding the Midianites’ camp, Gideon and his small army blew their trumpets, shouted their battle cry, broke their pitchers and held their torches high. “When the three hundred blew the trumpets, the Lord set every man’s sword against his companion throughout the whole camp; and the [enemy] army fled to Beth Acacia …” (Judges 7:22 Judges 7:22And the three hundred blew the trumpets, and the LORD set every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host: and the host fled to Bethshittah in Zererath, and to the border of Abelmeholah, to Tabbath.
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).

In the dark the Midianites panicked at the tumult of shouting, trumpet blasts and breaking pitchers and the sight of torches surrounding them. In their terror and confusion they fought and killed each other. Gideon’s men emerged unscathed.

The judge who refused to be king

In spite of his fame, Gideon remained humble. When he had routed the Midianites, the Israelites wanted him to rule as a king over them. Gideon’s memorable and faithful words: “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you” (Judges 8:23 Judges 8:23And Gideon said to them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you.
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).

Gideon’s words speak well of his character. He knew that all human rulership will eventually fail, that God’s rulership is the only lasting answer to mankind’s problems. Perhaps he understood that the time is coming during which this will become reality: Jesus Christ will reign on earth in the Kingdom of God.

Gideon knew that only God could exercise fair judgment on mankind. The book of Judges recounts a sad litany of how inadequately man rules himself.

The book of Judges concludes with, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 Judges 21:25In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
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). Some have assumed that this implies that a human king was the best answer to Israel’s backsliding during the days of the judges. This is not true. God makes this clear through the prophet Samuel when the Bible picks up the story of ancient Israel’s history: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make for us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them’ ” (1 Samuel 8:4-7 1 Samuel 8:4-7 4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah, 5 And said to him, Behold, you are old, and your sons walk not in your ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. 6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD said to Samuel, Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you: for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
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).

Judges 21:25 Judges 21:25In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
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is not advocating a human king as the solution for Israel’s problems throughout the time of the book of Judges. Coupled with Samuel’s experience in dealing with carnal, unconverted people, it does help us see that humans, in rejecting God’s rule over them, are incapable of rightly governing themselves.

Apparently Gideon understood the ultimate importance and safety of having God as man’s Ruler. He knew this was a far better outcome than being forced to endure the unpredictability and subjectivity of human nature and ingrained vanity and selfishness of human leaders. Gideon knew that God is always merciful, patient and just toward human beings; human beings are seldom so.

Gideon’s humble, visionary attitude made of him a conqueror before God and a hero in the eyes of his countrymen. Gideon’s example proves to us that, through the faithfulness of a few, many can be delivered and become conquerors. With God the outcome doesn’t depend on human might and strength (Zechariah 4:6 Zechariah 4:6Then he answered and spoke to me, saying, This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, said the LORD of hosts.
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), because a few plus God is better than a majority without Him!