Gideon’s Army

Read: Judges 7

What sort of people does God use to do his work in the world? You don’t necessarily have to be brave, or strong, or gifted. But you do have to be committed to him, and willing to fight for the right.

The place was London, the year 1865. A young Methodist preacher named William Booth was beginning a ministry in the dreadful slums of the East End. As he preached, Booth was moved by the appalling poverty — both physical and spiritual — he witnessed, so he began to adopt some rather unorthodox methods of ministry. While still preaching for conversion, he attempted at the same time to improve the physical and social condition of those among whom he worked. As he began to recruit others to the work he accepted both men and women on an equal basis. He wasn’t above using stunts like brass bands to attract a crowd or gospel music set to catchy popular tunes to appeal to common folk. Soon Booth had molded a highly motivated and well disciplined force of Christian workers which he organized along military lines. In 1878 William Booth published a set of Orders and Regulations for his organization, and the Salvation Army was born.

What Booth had latched onto was an important insight: God’s people are an army. We all are called to a life of discipline service and sacrificial devotion. “Endure hardship like a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” Paul urged his young friend Timothy (2 Tim. 2:3). That is a truth that people who have grown accustomed to soft comfort and self-gratification very much need to hear, however uncongenial we may find it.

When our Lord told his disciples in Matthew 16 that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church he was thinking of that church as a mighty army on the offensive, battering against the walls and foundations of the kingdom of darkness. By contrast the church today often seems less like an organized force for good and more like a mob of consumers who are more interested in entertainment than spiritual warfare.

The Commander God Chooses

Let’s look at the familiar story of Gideon to learn more about the sort of people God wants to use. We first meet Gideon in Judges chapter 6, where he is threshing wheat on his father’s farm. Israel is being periodically overrun by bands of Midianite raiders who sweep in from the desert to seize the produce of the land. When we’re introduced to Gideon we find him hiding himself and his harvest inside a winepress, so the enemy won’t find it or him. An angel appears, and greets him — perhaps ironically — with the words, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12). And Gideon replies, with equal sarcasm, “If the Lord is with us, why are we in such a fix?” It’s not a very promising beginning for the career of a great champion of God, one who would be called to deliver his people from their oppressors.

As if his timidity weren’t enough, Gideon also displays a serious lack of confidence in the call and promises of God. Do you remember the famous story of Gideon’s fleece? Not once, but twice, Gideon asks for a supernatural sign to prove that he really can and should do what God is commanding him to do. And twice the Lord graciously gives him that sign. That is a wonderful encouragement, but I don’t think we are meant to emulate Gideon’s example and continually ask God to give us signs. His word should be enough of a guide and encouragement for us to go by.

The Army God Uses

And then we come to the story of Gideon’s great victory over Midian. It starts with a puzzling command. As Gideon waits with the army he has collected to do battle with the enemy, the Lord informs him that he has too many men on hand for the job of defeating the enormous Midianite host (7:2). Now that’s a mighty strange generalship. What sort of commander, when faced with overwhelming odds against him, immediately sets his first priority as the reduction of his own force? But that is exactly what God tells Gideon to do. Now the Lord has a reason for this. He knows the pride in our hearts. He knows we love to take credit ourselves for what he has done for us, so he’s going to diminish Israel’s numbers to the point where even the proudest will not be able to deny that it was simply the Lord’s hand alone which brought salvation.

It must have really tested Gideon’s faith, though, to have to pass on the orders he received. Here’s Gideon thinking his men were far too few in number and God says no, they’re actually too many; we’ve got to get rid of most of them. But Gideon does what he’s told. Maybe he wondered about it, perhaps he didn’t understand why, but he did obey.

Now a basic principle emerges, I think, at this point in the story. The army God uses is always relatively small. God’s “majority” is actually a dedicated minority. He accomplishes his work most effectively through a handful who give themselves to him and his purposes heart and soul rather than through a vast crowd of hangers-on. Missionary great Harvey Hoekstra wrote a book some years ago about world evangelization in which he used the phrase “the committed few.” I like that phrase. He was referring not just to the missionaries but to those who support them. It’s always been that way. God works through the committed few. Jesus had just twelve apostles. There were only a hundred twenty or so disciples in the Upper Room on Pentecost.

Today evangelicals total less than 30% of all those who are identified as Christians. And even among evangelicals the number with a passion to reach the world with the gospel is quite frankly tiny. From one point of view this seems discouraging. As our Lord said, the harvest is great but the laborers are few. But then we remember that however small and weak we are in ourselves, it is God who delivers. “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). Better we should be few and dependent upon him than many and relying on our own strength.

The People God Wants

The tests Gideon was told to use to winnow his army are interesting in themselves. They show us, I think, the kind of people God is looking for. He begins by dismissing the fearful (v. 3). Fear is contagious in any pressure-filled undertaking. So those with no heart for the battle are given the option of returning home, and how discouraging it must have been when more than two-thirds of Gideon’s soldiers immediately take the opportunity to run away. I can’t read this scene without thinking of the great speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V just before the battle of Agincourt:

He which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

William Shakespeare, Henry V

God wants the committed few, the men (and women) who have a stomach for the fight. Does that mean only the absolutely fearless can serve him? Did the 10,000 who remained in camp with Gideon have no fear whatsoever? I don’t think so. But the difference was that in each of them the desire to be used was stronger than their fears and misgivings. Desire is the first great test of service, and the starting qualification for anyone whom God will use is simply to want to be used. When someone remarked to D. L. Moody that the world had yet to see what God would do through the man who was totally committed to him, Moody exclaimed immediately, “I will be that man!”

But astonishingly, Gideon is told that his 10,000 are still too many, and so a further test is devised (vv. 4-7). Only the men — 300 eventually — who would scoop up water and drink it quickly from their hand are retained for service. The point of the test may have been to reveal the level of discipline or perhaps of readiness among Israel’s troops. The Lord is looking for people who not only desire to serve him but who are always ready to be used, alert for every opportunity. The individuals he needs will be willing to accept hardship along the way because they put duty above personal comfort.

The Encouragement God Gives

No one in the Bible got more tangible encouragement than Gideon (think of that fleece again.) Now, on the eve of battle, Gideon seems once more to be hesitating. He obviously was a pretty reluctant leader. “If you are afraid,” the Lord tells him, “then take your servant and sneak down to the Midianite camp.” So Gideon goes, and as he eavesdrops outside an enemy tent, he hears a soldier recount a dream in which Gideon and his little band win a smashing victory. And so it proves: by sowing panic among the enemy, Gideon’s 300 end up destroying the army of Midian, mostly with its own help.

What an encouragement when our sovereign God draws aside the curtain and gives us a glimpse of the future he has ordained! When we are tempted to be fearful and hesitant, he reminds us who is in control. When we look at the world and tremble at the forces against us the Lord shows us that he rules them too, and they’re the ones who ought to be afraid, not us. We are on the winning side!

So that’s Gideon; timid, fearful, weak in faith, but still obedient, and therefore ultimately victorious. When I was a little boy in Sunday school we learned a song called “Dare to Be a Daniel.” Daniel, as we’ll see when we come to his story, was a great man who governed an empire. He was a hero of faith who braved the lions’ den. I’m not sure I could dare to be a Daniel. But I think, with God’s help, I could dare to be a Gideon. Couldn’t you?

About the Author

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.