The book of Judges tells the story of Israel from their settlement in the Promised Land (described in Joshua) to the time of the monarchy (described in Samuel and Kings). It’s a story of repeated turning away from God, of judgment, and, when the people finally cry out to the Lord, of God sending a deliverer. The two deliverers we’ll be looking at this term – Gideon and Samson – are two very contrasting characters, one weak one strong, but in both we will see the grace of God, and both in their own way foreshadow the great Deliverer that was to come.
Renewed apostasy leads again to God’s judgment – this time even more severe than they had known before. The people are reduced to living like cavemen – hiding in the mountains, whilst all their crops are stolen by Midianite hordes – till eventually the Israelites cry out to the Lord for help. God’s initial response was not to send them the deliverance they longed for, but rather a prophet: a sermon instead of saviour. They needed to remember who the God they had cried to was, and to understand why they were facing such distress. The people’s primary concern was to be rid of their problem, whereas God’s primary concern was to call them back to himself.
The prophet’s sermon appears to be left hanging: we might expect it to conclude “therefore …”, with a reaffirmation of judgment, but another messenger then appears with a message that is surprising in every way. “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior” he says, and Gideon questions both halves of that statement. “How can the LORD be with us, when things are as they are? All the evidence suggests that he has abandoned us”, he says. And Gideon clearly considered himself to be far from a “mighty warrior” (see v.15), nor does he seem much of one, hiding as he is in a winepress to thresh his wheat. But God’s sending of the prophet was testimony to the fact that God had not abandoned them, and even more so the Angel indicated that the LORD was with them. And God would make Gideon into a mighty warrior – he calls him what he will make him. He’s to save Israel with the strength he has (v.14), which would be hopelessly inadequate but for the fact that God would be with him. God would work in and through his weakness.
The Angel clearly had the appearance of a man, and yet he is the LORD, something Gideon gradually perceives (notice the change from respectful “my Lord” in v.13 to the uncertain perception of vv.17-18 to the clear apprehension of v.22). Notice too the marvellous grace of God: his patience with Gideon (it must have been quite some wait while Gideon butchered the goat and prepared the meal), and that great declaration of “Peace!”, demonstrated in the acceptance of Gideon’s offering. The fact that we’re told that this episode is remembered by the name “The LORD is peace” (v.24) suggests it is a lesson we should notice. Peace is what Israel longed for. Death is what they feared (like Gideon – vv.22,23). But God graciously proclaims peace, a peace to be found in him.
Before tackling the threat around them from the Midianites, they needed to recognise and distance themselves from the threat in their midst from idolatry. Gideon’s natural weakness is seen in his fear of his family and kinsfolk – if fearful of them, how will he face the Midianite armies, we might wonder – but that he obeys is what counts. The people fear Baal, hence their response when they find that Baal’s altar has been demolished is to want to appease his anger by putting Gideon to death, but Gideon’s father is emboldened by his son’s act of faith and stops them. The nickname Jerub-Baal means Gideon becomes living testimony to the powerlessness of Baal.
The enemy armies gather, and Gideon summons an army to face them. It is a task for which he is equipped for the Spirit of God comes upon him, but he still seeks assurance that God’s promise is true: the Spirit is all-powerful, but the vessel is weak. The laying of a fleece is not to discern God’s will, but to have confirmation of what he has been told, and this is not an example of how we should seek God’s guidance. It betrays a lack of faith, but God again shows his grace and patience.