Judges: Gideon and the Battle with the Midianites
God Saving His People.
Text: Judges 7:1-14,15-25
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
I invite you to turn again with me to the Book of Judges today, and to the continuing story of Gideon, this time in Judges 7:1-25. God had raised Gideon up to be a judge in Israel, with the primary task of saving his people from the Midianite raiders, who for 7 years had been storming into the Promised Land like locusts at harvest time to steal all the Israeli’s crops and livestock.
They were a powerful bunch of Bedouins who would ride in on camels and pillage the land. They would come in such droves that it was impossible to count the number of men and camels, but the estimate mentioned in chapter 8 of Judges was about 135,000.
As we come in on Gideon today, he has assembled an army of Israelite troops numbering about 32,000. That’s not bad for a farmer from the tribe on Manasseh, but his army is still outnumbered 4 to 1. But God has assured Gideon that He is with Him, and that He will give the Midianites into his hand.
Well, today we come to the battle, and it is a lengthy chapter so I have split it into two halves. Gloria Pothier is going to read the first half, and then I will jump in and read the second half.
Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” 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 thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ 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 as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. 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 others go home.” So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore. Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.” His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.”
When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside. “Watch me,” he told them. “Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’” Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. 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, they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled. When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled to Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath. Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. Gideon sent messengers throughout the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and seize the waters of the Jordan ahead of them as far as Beth Barah.” So all the men of Ephraim were called out and they seized the waters of the Jordan as far as Beth Barah. They also captured two of the Midianite leaders, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb at the winepress of Zeeb. They pursued the Midianites and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon, who was by the Jordan.
My friends, this is one of the most famous battles in the whole Book of Judges, and in the whole Bible. Gideon taking on 135,000 Midianites with just 300 men ranks right up there with the story of David and Goliath.
And the number of soldiers is important to the story because from God’s perspective, Gideon starts the day with too many men to fight the battle.
The Lord says to Gideon in verse 2, 'You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands.'
And so God tells Gideon to whittle down his 32,000 troops by weeding out any of them who are still trembling with fear of the Midianites. And you know what? 22,000 men left just like that! 22,000 of them, leaving Gideon with just 10,000 left. He is now outnumbered by the Midianites 13 ½ to 1.
But then God says in verse 4, 'Nope, there’s still too many men, Gideon. Let’s whittle them down a bit more. Take them all down to the water spring and tell them to get a drink. See who laps the water like a dog, and which ones kneel down to drink.'
So Gideon did so, and God said, 'Take the lappers, but send the kneelers back to their tents.' Now there were only 300 men left. They are now outnumbered by the Midianites 450 to 1.
God said, 'Perfect. That’s a good number. I like those odds.'
And why? Because back up in verse 2 God had said, 'In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her.'
My friends, this is the point of this whole story, and of the whole book of Judges. And if you think about it, it’s the point of the whole Bible: we cannot save ourselves.
And God is making it clear to Gideon and to all Israel that this battle belongs to Him. He is the One they are to rely on, not themselves and not their numbers. He is the One who is going to fight this battle, not their 32,000 troops, nor their 10,000 troops, nor even the 300 men who end up as God’s fighting force.
It’s not about the army of Israel, nor about how staggeringly outnumbered they are. God is making it clear from before the battle even starts that He is the One who will take on the Midianites.
But how do you think this makes our beloved hero Gideon feel the night before the big battle? He knows God is with him. He knows that he has been outnumbered from the beginning. But I’m sure there had been some comfort in also knowing that he had assembled 32,000 men to stand with him. He still needed to trust God even with 32,000, but trusting with the odds at 4 to 1 was a lot easier than with the odds at 450 to 1.
However, that’s only if you are still counting the numbers. And this is what God is trying teaching Gideon and the Israelites and all of us. 'Take your eyes off the numbers, and look at me,' God says. 'If I am for you,' God says, 'Who can successfully come against you?'
And look at how God gently teaches this to Gideon once again here in verse 9. God wakes Gideon up in the night, and because God knows Gideon quite well, he says, 'If you are still afraid to attack, here’s what I want you to do. Just take your servant Purah and sneak down in the dark to the outskirts of the Midianite camp. Listen to what they are saying, and you will be encouraged.'
So that’s what Gideon does. And let me point out again, that Gideon in spite of his fears, is constantly obedient to actually do what God asks him to do. And he steps out in obedience right in the face of his fears. I mean, think about this. It’s dangerous to go sneaking down to the enemy camp in the middle of the night with just two people. This was a risky little escapade all by itself. But Gideon and Purah do it anyway in the face of their fears.
And look what takes place. It just so happens that out of 135,000 enemy soldiers, Gideon and Purah get close enough to two particular soldiers who are talking about a nightmare that one of the soldiers just woke up from. In his dream he saw a loaf of barley bread come tumbling down the hill into the Midianite camp and it hit a tent with such force that it knocked the tent down. And the other soldier hearing the dream immediately says, 'This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.'
What?! That’s the crazy dream? And that’s the Midianite soldier’s immediate interpretation of the dream? He even names Gideon by name?
Well, God told Gideon if he went down to the enemy camp he would hear something that would encourage him. And what Gideon hears is another amazing sign to him that God is with him, and surprisingly that he is not the only one approaching this battle with fear: the Midianites are actually afraid of him!
God has already begun sowing fear into the hearts of the enemy. These Midianites somehow already have a sense that they are doomed. They seem to already know that the God of Israel has given them over into Gideon’s hands.
And when Gideon hears this, it’s all he needs to know! He is not thinking about the numbers of troops anymore. And he is not thinking about his fears. He is actually ready to roll because he knows without a doubt that God is God, and God is going to fight this battle, and if God is on his side, it doesn’t matter who tries to come against him, the battle belongs to the Lord.
So Gideon and Purah hightail it back up to their own camp, and right then and there in the middle of the night they wake the other 300 men up. Gideon says, 'Get up! The Lord has given the Midianites into your hands. We’re taking them on right now!'
And then Gideon lays out the battle plan. They are going to split into three companies of 100 men each. Each man will take a trumpet, and an empty jar with a torch upside down inside of it. They are going to sneak down right then in the middle of the night, space the companies of men all around the enemy camp spread out so that each man stands by himself.
They are to wait for Gideon, and do exactly what he does. Blow the trumpets, smash the jars, light the torches, and yell, 'For the LORD and for Gideon.'
And here’s what happens. Verse 19 says they take up their positions at the beginning of the middle watch just after the changing of the guard.
So it is dark, a little after midnight. Some soldiers are just coming off guard duty and are heading back to their tents, and taking off their weapons and clothes for bed. Other soldiers have just woken up and are just putting on their weapons and taking up their positions for guard duty.
It’s all quiet, but as we heard from the two soldiers earlier, there is already a fear in the Midianite camp of what the next day might bring. And then all of a sudden trumpets are blaring all around the camp. There’s the sound of smashing, crashing jars but no one knows it’s just jars. It just sounds like destruction. And then there are torches lighting up everywhere, all around and men are shouting 'A sword for the Lord and for Gideon.' And notice that what the Israelites yell is a phrase right out of the nightmare of the Midianite soldier: 'the sword of Gideon.'
And it’s what we call a “rude awakening” in the middle of the night. Panic sets in. It sounds like the camp is being invaded by Israelites from every direction, but in the dark and with sleep still in most of their eyes, the Midianites don’t know who is a Midianite and who is an Israelite. But the Israelites have not budged. Verse 21 says the Israelites all held their positions around the camp. But the Midianites believing they were being invaded started turning their weapons on each other.
So while the Israelites stand on the outskirts of the camp with their torches, yelling and blaring the trumpets. The Midianites start killing each other and fleeing in all directions. And verse 22 says that the Lord caused this. The Lord caused the men in the camp to turn their swords on each other.
And there are two things I want us to notice in this.
1. First, that once again, the point of the story is that God demonstrates his saving power by 'his mighty outstretched arm' and not by our human strength or ingenuity.
This battle plan with the trumpets and jars and torches was not some ingenious way Gideon came up with of duping the Midianites into believing that there were way more Israelites coming at them than there were. No, the battle plan is God inviting Gideon and his 300 men, and later all of Israel, to see that God’s strength is made perfect in their weakness.
Gideon and his 300 men are a display of how God uses the weak to shame the strong. And we are not meant to be impressed by Gideon and his amazing mighty men who could take on 135,000 men with just 300 Israelites. No. We are meant to be amazed and impressed by God, who can save whether by many or by few. It is God who delivers the Israelites out of the hands of Midian just as He promised Gideon he would from the very beginning.
2. And secondly, we see here once again in this battle, that when God brings judgment on people in the Bible, He quite often does it by turning their own evil back on themselves.
When these brutal Midianites start stabbing each other with their swords, while the Israelite soldiers stand on the perimeter and watch by the light of their torches, it is a sure sign that God is meting out a punishment on their enemies that they richly deserved.
Those very same swords had for 7 years been terrorizing the land of Promise. The Israelites and other Canaanite people groups had been living in fear of those swords year after year, and had been impoverished by these hordes of Bedouins taking all their crops and cattle.
It is so typical of God’s judgment that He would use the Midianites own swords to bring them down. In the Book of Esther in the Bible, it is the evil Haman’s own gallows which were erected to hang and kill Jews that Haman himself gets hung upon and killed. In the great battle of David and Goliath, David brings Goliath down with a stone from his sling, but he then kills the knocked out giant with Goliath’s own sword.
We see it again and again in the Bible that the traps God’s enemies set for God’s people they end up falling into themselves.
And it’s the same in the New Testament with the ultimate way in which God saves His people from the enemy.
In the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 2, it says that Jesus, shared our humanity 'so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.' (Hebrews 2:14b-15)
You see, God used death itself to defeat the one who held the power of death over us. On Good Friday, Satan thought that the cross was his weapon against God Himself. He thought the cross was his greatest victory and the symbol of his strength to defeat God once and for all.
But God turned the cross itself against the enemy. By entering into death itself, and then overcoming that death in resurrection, God actually defeated the power of death and set us free. The cross became God’s great symbol of victory, not Satan’s. The cross became the tool by which Satan’s judgment and defeat were fully accomplished…for us and for our salvation.
This is what Gideon’s battle with the Midianites and all the other great narratives of the Bible point us toward. That salvation comes from God. And it is purely by grace we are saved. It is not because of us. In fact, like with Gideon, and Ehud, and Shamgar, and Deborah, and all the other judges, God choses us because he chooses the weak in the world to shame the strong; and the foolish to shame the wise; and the lowly and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
He does this so that the only one we learn to boast in, is God Himself. At the end of the day, Gideon and his 300 men, and the other 32,000 and all of Israel, they give thanks and praise to God alone.
As we come to take communion together today, that’s what we want to do, too.
Let us pray.