How different Gideon seems here from the man we were introduced to in ch.6. There the Angel of the LORD addressed him as “mighty warrior”, though he scarcely seemed to warrant it, but now he seems to have grown into just that. The weak man now looks strong, but instead of the LORD’s strength working in him, it seems rather to be his own strength on display. The timid man has become something of a tyrant. In part this development in Gideon is a sign of God’s grace, he has grown in confidence and competence, but in part too it’s a warning of the dangers of success – how too easily it leads us away from dependence on God. One of the striking differences of this chapter from the previous two is that there is no mention of God acting or speaking: Gideon on occasion speaks about God, but the action is driven by Gideon himself.
In chapter 6 Gideon had had to challenge Baal, in chapter 7 he took on the Midianites, but for much of this chapter it is his own people that he is having to deal with. First of all it is the tribe of Ephraim, one of the leading tribes, who are miffed at seemingly being sidelined. They feel slighted that they should not get to share in the glory of victory, but of course the glory was meant to be all God’s (cf. 7:2) anyway. Gideon’s response is a model of a gentle answer turning away wrath (Prov.15:1), and shows his wisdom as a leader – here his development certainly is shown in a positive light. The Ephraimites’ pride and self-interest, though, flags up at the start of the chapter a problem that we will soon see has also taken root in Gideon’s own heart.
Next it is the people of Succoth and Peniel causing Gideon grief. Their reluctance to help reflects their understandable fear that if the Midianites were not indeed defeated, then anyone who had supported Gideon would face reprisals and situated where they were (on the other side of the Jordan) they would be among the first to do so. A wiser reply from Gideon might have won them round, but he is quick to condemn (“just for that” v.7); and instead of clearly pointing to what the LORD was doing to encourage them, the progression of his two responses (“when the LORD has given Z and Z into my hand” v.7 and “when I return in triumph” v.9) shows how the LORD’s hand in this victory is quickly being forgotten.
Gideon does show impressive leadership qualities: his dogged pursuit of Z and Z over 150 miles with exhausted troops and his capture of Z and Z, defeating an army of 15,000 with just 300 men through guile and cleverness. But it becomes apparent that what is driving him is not zeal for God and obedience to his leading, so much as his own personal agenda: revenge. His vengefulness towards Succoth and Peniel is driven by a deeper vengefulness towards those who had killed his brothers. It’s become about him, not God. In v.21, when challenged by Z and Z to prove his strength, he does so, slaying them with his own sword. But whereas in the previous chapter it was God’s strength being displayed in his weakness, now it is a different kind of strength on display.
When offered the kingship, Gideon’s reply is commendable, but his actions show how easy it can be to give the right answers and profess the right theology, and yet not live in a way that backs it up. In making an alternative ephod he took on himself a kind of spiritual leadership to which he wasn’t called, and which resulted in him leading Israel into idolatry (what a reversal of 6:25ff!). His many wives and concubines suggest he happily took on the trappings of kingship, and in calling one of his sons Abimelek (which means “My father is king”) he clearly assumed the kingship in all but name. He did preserve peace for 40 years (v.28) and v.35 speaks of “all the good things he had done”, but the speed with which the Israelites turned to the Baals after his death shows that it was a different and better king that they needed: one whose wisdom and persistence and courage were all used to further God’s purposes and glory, not his own purposes or glory.