Gideon’s Tests of Faith

it’s not hard to see ourselves in this story, stumbling through the walk of faith. And it not hard for us to see our God in this story, patiently walking with us.

Chris Hutchison on June 9, 2024
Gideon’s Tests of Faith
June 9, 2024

Gideon’s Tests of Faith

Passage: Judges 6:33-7:15
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A number of years ago I had a friend who owned an item that was very valuable to them. They had spent a fair bit of cash on it, and planned to keep it for the rest of their lives.

But as time went on and they grew in maturity, I think they began to realize that they treasured this item a little bit too much. That it was a bit too important to them. It might have even reached idol status, competing with God for top place in their hearts.

We talked about this, and they prayed about it, and they surrendered it to God. And they next time we talked, they said that they had let it go and were willing to get rid of it. But they wondered if it was okay for them to keep it now. As long as they were willing to get rid of it, they were allowed to still have it, right?

And so we talked together about the gap that often exists between saying “yes” to God and actually following through. It’s easy to say “I surrender all.” It’s another thing to actually surrender all.

Think of Abraham, when God told to sacrifice Isaac. When did God stop him and say “now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). Was it the next morning when Abraham actually got up and saddled his donkey and cut the wood? Was it one, or two days in to the journey to mount Moriah? Was it when he left his young men with the donkey and began the walk up the mountain with Isaac? Was it even when he tied up Isaac and set him on the altar?

No. God did not stop Abraham until he “reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son” (Genesis 22:10). God knew that there was a long journey between saying “yes” and actually doing the deed. And for Abraham, it was a literal journey. Each step on those three days was a step of obedience. At each point he could have turned around. And his obedience is not proved until he gets right up to the very point of doing the deed.

Gideon also has a journey of faith, and sometimes faithlessness, from when he first says “yes” to the Lord to when he actually does what God told him to do. And this journey does not move in a straight line. As we follow along today on these four episodes in Gideon’s journey of faith, it’s frustrating at times. We keep waiting for Gideon to get on with it and just do what God told him to do.

But as we watch Gideon, we learn about the gap between being willing to obey and actually obeying. We learn about ourselves. And, more than anything, we learn about the God who faithfully walks with His people as they struggle to believe and struggle to obey.

Let’s remember where we’re picking up. Gideon has been called by God, and he’s successfully completed his first mission by destroying his father’s alter, and that leads us in to the first episode in today’s passage.


1. The Muster (6:33-35)

“Now all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East came together, and they crossed the Jordan and encamped in the Valley of Jezreel. But the Spirit of the Lord clothed Gideon, and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. And he sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, and they too were called out to follow him. And he sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they went up to meet them” (Judges 6:33–35).

Gideon has passed his first test, the Midianites come sweeping into the land again, the Spirit of the Lord clothes Gideon, he sounds the trumpet—which is a call to battle—and amazingly, his own people, the Abiezrites, follow him. Not all of them want to kill him, or at least not any more. He sends messengers to the rest of his tribe, and three other tribes, and they all follow him.

God is doing something, Gideon has been clothed with the Spirit, and he has a willing army behind him. And based on what we’ve seen, we’re expecting battle to follow relatively quickly. We’re expecting this man to march to victory.

But not so fast. Remember the journey. Gideon might have taken three steps forward but he’s about to take two steps back in our second episode, the fleece.


2. The Fleece (6:36-40)

Verse 36: “Then Gideon said to God, ‘If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said’” (Judges 6:36–37).

This is a famous but often misunderstood story. To understand it properly we need to understand it in the context of the passage. Remember that Gideon has clearly been told what God intends to do. He’s already experienced a sign of God’s presence with him, when the angel of the Lord supernaturally turned his meal into a burnt offering. He’s already been clothed with the Spirit, the people have already responded, and he’s all ready to go.

But Gideon hesitates. We’re surprised by this as far as the flow of the story goes, because it’s not what we were expecting, but if we think a little deeper about what it might have felt like to be in Gideon’s shoes, perhaps isn’t not that big of a surprise.

What must Gideon have felt? We’re not told that he was afraid, but that’s pretty likely. I’d be afraid if I was going up against an army like the Midaianites. At the very least, Gideon is struggling with faith. He’s struggling to believe that God is going to do what He said.

So he says, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said…” Gideon knows what God has said. He wants some proof that God is actually going to do it. And God doesn’t have to go along with this. God could say to Gideon, “You don’t need any more signs. You’ve got my word, all of the promises in Deuteronomy, plus the sign I already gave you and the things I’ve done since. What are you waiting for?”

But God, in His incredible kindness and patience, does what Gideon asks. Verse 38: “When he rose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.”

That’s amazing, and it should have been enough for Gideon. He said it would be enough. “Then I will know!” But he’s not true to his word. He’s still not certain. So he delays another day, asking for a second test. And he seems to know that he’s out on a limb here. Verse 39: “Then Gideon said to God, ‘Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew’” (Judges 6:39).

And again, an amazing thing happens in verse 40: “And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.” And evidently that’s enough for Gideon because in the next verse, he’s off towards the Midianite camp.

Now what should we make of Gideon’s fleece episode? Probably some of you have heard of people talk about this idea of “setting out a fleece” as a way to discern the will of God. People following Gideon’s example as they set up tests to seek direction on what they should do. I know at least one couple that got married this way. He wasn’t sure if he should propose, so he told God that if she said a certain phrase when he saw her, or something like that, then he’d propose. That was his “fleece.” And when he heard her say those words, he told her that God wanted them to get married.

I don’t think that’s what we should do with this passage, for a number of reasons. First, “setting up a fleece” isn’t something God has ever told us to do. God has told us everything we need to know about His will in Scripture, and for the rest, He’s given us wisdom and freedom. While He may choose to give us impressions at times, He’s never promised to speak to us in any other way than Scripture. So setting up little tests to discern His will is not anything He’s told us to do.

Second, Gideon’s fleece wasn’t even about figuring out God’s will. Gideon knew God’s will. God had already told him! In fact, Gideon is the only judge whom God speaks to directly. Gideon’s problem isn’t knowing what to do. Gideon’s problem is having the faith to believe that God is going to be there for Him as He steps out in obedience. His problem is with trusting God’s faithfulness.

And that leads us to our third point, which is that Gideon shouldn’t have needed these tests. In fact, we could go so far as to say that these tests were wrong. God told His people in Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16). God often tests us, to see if we’re going to do what He told us to do. But we are not to test God, to try and prove whether or not He’s going to do what He said to do. He is Yahweh—faithful, covenant keeping God of steadfast love and faithfulness.

It’s noteworthy that that name, Yahweh, which shows up in our English Bibles as “Lord,” is missing from verses 36-40. The sense is almost like Gideon is treating Yahweh just like any other God who may or may not follow through on His word.

And the fact that God goes along with Gideon’s tests does not mean that He’s okay with Gideon doing this, and that we should follow Gideon’s example. Imagine a dad telling his three-year-old to go put away his toys. Instead, the three year old climbs up on the kitchen counter and jumps off. And the dad dives and catches his sons in his arms just before he hits his head on the ground.

If you were to watch that, the lesson you should learn is not “It’s okay to disobey your dad and jump off of counters instead.” The lesson you’d learn is, “That’s a good dad.”

In this story, God is so committed to saving His people that He’s willing to be patient with Gideon’s foolishness. That’s the point for us. Not to follow Gideon’s example, but to marvel at the patience of the God who bears with Him because He is faithful to His stumbling children.


3. The 300 (7:1-8)

And yet, we might wonder: isn’t God letting Gideon get the wrong idea? Isn’t God letting Gideon start to think that he can manipulate God? That God is doing Gideon’s bidding? That it’s okay for Gideon to test God as if Gideon was the one in charge?

Well if Gideon had any of these ideas they get thoroughly kicked out of him in this next episode. Gideon and his men are the ones being evaluated now as God sets the record straight on who is in charge, who is doing the saving here, and on whose power this whole campaign depends.

It starts in verse 1 of chapter 7 when Gideon—referred to by his taunting name, Jerubbaal—and all the men with him rise and encamp just south of the Midianites. If you look up the spring of Harod and the hill of Moreh on a map, it’s about the distance from downtown Nipawin to Codette. Not a huge gap. With thousands of people gathered in each camp, they are right on the brink of battle.

And by now we’re ready for the battle. There’s been some interruptions with the fleece, but let’s get on with it!

Not so fast. God has other plans, other intentions to glorify Himself. Verse 2: “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’”

This is not what we expected to hear. We find out in just a few verses that there was about 32,000 Israelites compared to about 135,000 of the Midianite/Amalekite alliance. If anything, Gideon might expect God to say, “the people with you are too few for me to give the Midianites into their hand.” Or, “the Midianites are too many for me to give them into your hand.”

But no, God sees how fickle and sinful his people are, and even with these odds, they’ll foolishly claim victory for themselves.

So, he has a plan to make his weak people even weaker. And along the way stretch Gideon’s feeble faith even further.

Verse 3: “Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ ” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained.”

Great. Now it’s 10,000 against 135,000. How do you think Gideon’s doing now? Can you imagine watching 2/3 of your army take off like this?

But we’re still not there yet. Verse 4: “And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many.’” And so God, as the one giving orders here, tells Gideon to send the men down to the water for a drink. Most of the men kneel down, putting their mouths right to the water to drink. A select few—300—use their hands, bringing the water up to their mouth.

And in verse 7, we read the Lord saying to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.”

What’s going on here? Is it the case that, as some people suggested, the 300 were the real warriors, keeping their heads up, staying alert in the presence of their enemies? Or is this just a random test to whittle the number down to something ridiculously small?

Either way, it’s down to 300, a ridiculously small number.

Some of you might be familiar with the story of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when 300 spartans went up against a force of at least 120,000 Persians. In reality, the 300 Spartans were only a portion of the Greek force of closer to 7,000 soldiers. And after the main army retreated, about 1,000 soldiers remained in one of history’s most famous last stands as they each fought to the death.

That’s what happens when you put a few thousand soldiers up against a way larger army. The smaller army dies.

And here’s Gideon, with only 300, no more, against 120,000 people.

But God has told him with these 300 he will give the Midianites into his hand. And so the men take provisions and trumpets in verse 8 while the rest are dismissed—no doubt, confused, no doubt saying “goodbye” to these 300 men whom they expect to be dead before too long.

What’s the big lesson for us in this episode here? Isn’t it that God does His best work through weakness? We so easily think that we need to be strong for God to do anything with us. As humans we praise the strong and think that we need to be strong to be of any good to the Lord. And the opposite is true.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

I’ve known that truth in my head for years but in my heart I still wrestle with weakness, thinking that it’s an impediment to being used by God. And it’s not.

Where are you weak? Where do you feel like you’re not enough? Where does your body or your mind let you down? That may be the very thing that qualifies you to be used of God, because that will guarantee that everybody knows it’s God and not you who did the work.

So share the gospel with your co-worker, even though your voice is shaking. Say yes to the ministry opportunity, even though you feel like others would do a better job. Get up and love your kids tomorrow, even though your tank feels totally empty.  Pray for someone after the service, even if you’re not very good with words.

And when life knocks you down a few notches, when you experience setbacks with your health, maybe God is refining you, pruning you, like Gideon’s army. Maybe the crisis that made you ask “what are you doing, Lord?” was actually God preparing you for a new season of Spirit-empowered service.

God loves to use His weak people to do His work because when His strength works through our weakness, He gets the glory. And we get the joy at getting to be the jars of clay into which God places the priceless treasure of the gospel.


4. The Dream (7:9-14)

So Gideon, his forces pruned to 300 men, is right on the verge of a powerful victory. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t feeling it right then. If he felt hesitant with 32,000 at his command, wouldn’t he feel totally hopeless with only 300? Maybe he thinks God is playing a joke on him. Maybe he’s wondering if he really heard God’s voice. Maybe he thinks he’s lost his mind, that this was all in his head.

And God sees that He needs encouragement. This time, rather than waiting for Gideon to ask, God reaches out to offer His own sign to Him. Isn’t that so wonderful of Him? God doesn’t just test our faith. He knows when to encourage our faith.

Verse 9: “That same night the Lord said to him, ‘Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hand. But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant. And you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.’ Then he went down with Purah his servant to the outposts of the armed men who were in the camp” (Judges 7:9–11).

God reassures Gideon that the deed is done: He has delivered the Midianites into his hand. But if he’s afraid—which he certainly is—he’s to take his second-hand man, and go down, and hear something that will strengthen his hand to finally obey.

So what’s he going to hear? We want to know. Gideon wants to know. So he goes to the outskirts of the camp. And there, he would have caught a glimpse of what’s described for us in verse 12: “And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East lay along the valley like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance.”

Can you almost picture the tents illuminated by moonlight, the campfires and torches spreading out like a menacing galaxy across the valley? Gideon sees what he’s up against. This is probably not an encouraging trip so far.

But listen in again to what we find in verse 13: “When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, ‘Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat.’ And his comrade answered, ‘This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp’” (Judges 7:13–14).

What does this reveal? First, it reveals the omniscience of God. God told Gideon that he would hear something encouraging, and here it is happening. God can be trusted.

Second, it shows that the Midianites know about Gideon. It’s not that surprising that they’d know someone had blown the trumpet and mustered an army, especially how close they were. But the amazing part is that they’re afraid of him. They know better what Gideon himself has had such a hard time believing: that God is going to give them into his hand.

Third, the dream corresponds to the reality Gideon knows all too well. In normal life, a cake of barley rolling into a tent is not going to knock that tent flat. Any more than 300 Israelites are going to conquer the Midianite army. But the dream shows God using a small thing to conquer a big thing. The Midianites and Gideon both know the point of the dream.

And Gideon worships, verse 15. He bowed himself before this God who was able to make all of this happen and was making all of this happen. And Gideon returns to the camp, no doubt energized, and says to his men what God said to him back in verse 9: “Arise, for the Lord has given the host of Midian into your hand.”

Gideon believes what God has told him, and he’s finally going to act on it. And that’s where we end today. Next week, Damian will pick us up with the actual battle and its aftermath.


Conclusion

Today, as we step back and look at this passage as a whole, it's not hard to see ourselves in this story, stumbling through the walk of faith, doubt and belief at war within us, three steps forward in two steps back, wondering what the world God is up to as we pray for the faith to take Him at his word and struggle to obey His simple but challenging commands.

And it not hard for us to see our God in this story, patiently walking with us, testing our faith to make it grow, to bring glory to Himself and joy to us, stooping to accommodate to our weaknesses, reminding us again and again and again of what we should never have forgotten in the first place.

This week, where are you going to struggle to believe his promises? Where are you going to struggle to obey his commands? Is it being patient with your kids? Refusing to gossip in the lunch room? Hanging on to hope as a relationship or your own body falls apart? You don't need a fleece. He’s told you everything you need to know. But don’t we beg for a sign of His grace, a sign that He’s still with us?

And this morning he’s given us one. As Dale Davis has said, “God doesn’t mind humbling himself in order to bolster our fragile faith, our wavering grip on his word. He is so eager to do just that that he has provided a table instead of a threshing floor, and bread and wine in place of a fleece.”1Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 100.

The bread and the cup today remind us that a real Jesus in a real body suffered for our sins on the cross, rose to redeem us, and is returning soon to make all things new. And if He did not spare His own Son for us, but gave him up for us “how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).