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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Judges 7

Gideon’s personal struggle to believe God’s promise 6:33-7:18

"The primary matter in the Gideon narrative is not the deliverance itself, but rather something more personal, namely, Gideon’s struggle to believe God’s promise. . . .

"Judges 6:33 to Judges 7:18 is arranged in the following concentric pattern:

"A The Spirit-endowed Gideon mobilized four tribes against the Midianites, though lacking confidence in God’s promise (Judges 6:33-35).

B Gideon sought a sign from God with the fleece to confirm the promise that the Lord would give Midian into his hand (Judges 6:36-40).

C. With the fearful Israelites having departed, God directed Gideon to go down to the water for the further reduction of his force (Judges 7:1-8).

C’ With fear still in Gideon himself, God directed Gideon to go down to the enemy camp to overhear the enemy (Judges 7:9-11).

B’ God provided a sign to Gideon with the dream of the Midianite to confirm the promise that the Lord would give Midian into his hand (Judges 7:12-14).

A’ The worshiping Gideon mobilized his force of 300 for a surprise attack against the Midianites, fully confident in God’s promise (Judges 7:15-18).

"The reduction of Gideon’s army is a familiar story often told from the perspective of emphasizing God’s ability to deliver whether by many or by few. While this is true, such an explanation falls short of doing justice in this context. The context is dealing with a struggle within Gideon himself." [Note: Tanner, p. 157.]

Verses 1-8

God’s command to reduce the troops 7:1-8

Presumably, God willingly gave Gideon the signs of the fleece because He knew the command He would give him to reduce his army would stretch his faith to its limit. The Israelite soldiers numbered only 32,000 (or 32 units, Judges 7:3) while the Midianites and their allies fielded about 135,000 warriors (or 135 units, Judges 8:10).

God revealed His purpose in reducing Israel’s army clearly. He wanted everyone to recognize that the victory was His work rather than Israel’s (Judges 7:2).

"Judges 7:2 is one of the most important verses in the Bible for understanding God’s principles of spiritual warfare. God is not interested in simply giving His people victory. He is concerned with teaching us trust. In fact, if our victories make us self-reliant, they are ultimately more disastrous than defeat." [Note: Inrig, p. 125.]

In the law Moses had said that the Israelites should not force the fearful to go into battle (Deuteronomy 20:8). God reminded Gideon to give any who were afraid the opportunity to go home, which he did (Judges 7:3). However the large number that deserted him, more than two out of three, must have shocked Gideon. Then God said that even the remaining 10,000 soldiers (or 10 units) were too many (Judges 7:4).

The normal way to drink from a stream was to get down on one’s hands and knees and put his mouth to the water. This is what most of the soldiers did. A smaller number simply remained standing or kneeled, reached down, dipped one hand into the water, and brought the water to their lips. God told Gideon that he should send the majority home and that He would deliver Israel with the 300 men who remained. That made the ratio of Midianite to Israelite soldiers 450 to one (assuming eleph means "thousand" here). It is not clear whether God’s test and choice were arbitrary, having no other significance than that most people drank in one way and fewer in the other. Possibly God designed the test to distinguish the more alert soldiers from the less alert. [Note: Lewis, p. 49.] Getting down on all fours leaves one more vulnerable than if one remains upright while drinking. Another possibility is that God intended to identify the least likely to succeed, those who had so little self-confidence that they kept an eye out for the enemy while they drank. [Note: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 5:6:3, preferred this option.]

"I suggest that the lapping by the 300 like dogs symbolizes a lapping of the enemy’s blood." [Note: D. Daube, "Gideon’s Few," Journal of Jewish Studies 7 (1956):156.]

The text does not enable us to understand God’s motive certainly. Simple obedience is what He required. Before God told Gideon to let the larger group of soldiers go home, He gave him a promise that He would deliver Israel with the 300 remaining warriors. This promise undoubtedly encouraged Gideon’s faith.

Verses 9-11

God’s command to visit the Midianites’ camp 7:9-11

God then commanded Gideon to prepare for battle that very night (Judges 7:9). He offered the judge a further sign that He would be victorious, and Gideon immediately seized it. God did not rebuke Gideon’s normal fear of going into battle against such overwhelming odds. Instead He strengthened his faith.

"Gideon is no fearless all-pro linebacker, no General Patton and John Wayne rolled into one huge ball of true grit.

"We sometimes dupe ourselves into thinking that a real servant of Christ is only someone who is dynamic, assured, confident, brash, fearless, witty, adventuresome, or glamorous-with one or two appearances on a Christian television network. Don’t think you are unusable because you don’t have that air about you. Christ takes uncertain and fearful folk, strengthens their hands in the oddest ways, and makes them able to stand for him in school or home or work." [Note: Davis, pp. 106-7.]

"Gideon’s request with the fleece reflected war in his heart: he was fearful and lacked faith. Interestingly the reduction of Gideon’s army in the structure of the text falls precisely between his unfounded request for a fleece and God’s exposure of his fear. Therefore the reduction of the army was not so much intended to glorify God (by demonstrating His ability to deliver with only 300) as it was to put Gideon in a position where his fear would be exposed. The very thing Gideon had hoped to achieve by the fleece demonstration-some kind of self-assurance that things would turn out well-was the very ’carpet’ that God pulled out from beneath him. Gideon sought to gain some security by his self-conceived sign with the fleece, and though God acquiesced to that request, He immediately countered by putting Gideon in an even more vulnerable position. If Gideon struggled to trust God with 32,000 Israelites against a Midianite force of 135,000 (see Judges 8:10), how would he react when he had only a force of 300? In this light the words of God in Judges 7:10 take on great significance." [Note: Tanner, p. 159.]

Verses 12-14

God’s provision of encouragement 7:12-14

Gideon and his servant heard two enemy soldiers conversing on the outskirts of the Midianite camp. One soldier was relating a dream he had had to his friend. The writer probably included the reference to the apparently innumerable Midianite enemy (Judges 7:12) to emphasize the greatness of the victory God gave His people.

"Dreams were considered of great importance in ancient times, especially if the dreamer was a man of rank or authority, for the gods were conceived to make known their will or desires by this means. Every dream was believed to be capable of interpretation, though this was, of course, the point where difficulties arose." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 111.]

Yahweh obviously sent this dream. The Midianite soldier derived his interpretation of his friend’s dream from the symbolism in the dream. Barley bread was the food of the poor and would have been the staple of the Israelites under the conditions they had to endure during Midian’s oppression. The tent was the home of all the Midianite, Amalekite, and Arabian Bedouins. The soldiers had obviously heard of Gideon and his plans to engage them in battle. They therefore concluded that the unlikely destruction of the tent by a mere loaf of barley bread signified Gideon’s destruction of their forces.

"What Gideon sought to gain by the sign of the fleece was brought to nil. So he had to go back to the choice to believe God’s promise simply because God had spoken. . . . The irony is stunning: hearing the promise directly from the Lord did not convince Gideon, but hearing it from the Midianite soldier did." [Note: Tanner, p. 159.]

Verses 15-18

The mobilizing of Gideon’s band in faith 7:15-18

Upon hearing this interpretation Gideon received courage to believe that God would indeed grant him victory (Judges 7:15).

"No character in the book receives more divine assurance than Gideon and no one displays more doubt. Gideon is, significantly, the only judge to whom God speaks directly, though this privilege does not allay his faintheartedness." [Note: Exum, p. 416.]

Gideon’s strategy was so effective that the Lord must have revealed it to him, though the text does not state this. Almost equally amazing is the fact that Gideon’s 300 followers obeyed his bizarre instructions. This too had to have been from the Lord. The three companies of Israelites may not have completely encircled the enemy. Nevertheless the presence of three widely separated groups of soldiers gave the Midianites the impression that a very large number of Israelites was out there in the dark. The trumpets were rams horns that the Israelite soldiers tied around their necks. The empty pitchers concealed and protected the torches until the soldiers broke them. The light from the torches combined with the noise of the breaking pitchers, the blowing of trumpets that made each soldier sound like a company commander, and the shouting of the soldiers. All this led the sleepy Midianites to conclude that a vast host of Israelite warriors surrounded them.

"Gideon had moved from fear to faith, and that is precisely the point of the section Judges 6:33 to Judges 7:18. . . .

"The textual patterning of the Gideon narrative is carefully composed to highlight not the deliverance from Midian but the change that transpired in Gideon’s heart, and it is precisely there that the greatest theological lesson in these chapters is found. The fear in Gideon’s heart held him back from being able to trust the promise God had given about his delivering Israel from the Midianites. To overcome this deficiency in Gideon’s life, God uniquely worked to expose the problem of fear in his life and to bring him to a point of worship and faith. Then and only then was Gideon ready to lead Israel in battle. . . . Furthermore all the struggles in the book result from a lack of faith. This struggle is most fully spelled out in the Gideon narrative, which accords with this event (his religious struggle) being put in the very center of the book.

". . . the narrator leaves the reader with a penetrating message: God must bring His servant to a moment when all human confidence is stripped away, he sits silently in humble adoration of his God as the One who is totally sufficient against all odds to accomplish His divine will. Then and only then is he ready to move forward to taste God’s victory, though that victory is no more secure or certain than before." [Note: Tanner, p. 160.]

"Even so, while it seems that Gideon has ’moved from fear to faith,’ the situation may actually be more complicated. The two versions of Gideon’s battle cry, ’For the LORD and for Gideon!’ (Judges 7:18) and ’A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!’ (Judges 7:20), suggest that Gideon may also be moving from fear to self-assertion. While from one perspective Gideon may simply be exercising strong military leadership, he also seems willing to take at least some of ’the credit’ (Judges 7:2) for the victory. This is not a good sign." [Note: McCann, p. 67.]

Verses 19-21

The defeat of the Midianites 7:19-8:21

Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites took some time and involved some conflict with the other Israelites.

Verses 19-22

Gideon’s initial victory 7:19-22

Gideon commenced his "attack" at the beginning of the middle watch, which was evidently midnight. [Note: Bush, p. 104; Keil and Delitzsch, p. 347. Lindsey, p. 394, wrote that it was 10:00 p.m.] Many of the Midianites would have been sound asleep and upon awakening would have felt confused by the sights and sounds of their enemies. The movements of their own men milling around the camp as a result of the recent watch change would have disoriented them further. Perhaps the camels stampeded because of the torch fire and general confusion, giving the waking Midianites the impression that mounted soldiers had invaded their camp.

The Midianites felt so bewildered by this "surprise attack" that they slaughtered their fellow soldiers in the confusion and fled for home as fast as they could go (cf. Judges 4:15-16). The towns mentioned (Judges 7:22) were at the southeast end of the Harod (lit. trembling) Valley. The Harod Valley is an eastern extension of the Jezreel Valley, and it connects the Jezreel Valley with the Jordan Valley. These towns stood on either side of the Jordan River. Zererah (or Zerethan, Judges 7:22) was about five miles southwest of Succoth and Penuel. [Note: The Macmillan Bible Atlas, map 76, p. 54.] Thus God accomplished again what amounts to another exodus for Israel.

Verses 23-25

Pursuit of the enemy 7:23-25

The pursuit described in these verses may have taken several days. Gideon sent a call for reinforcements throughout the whole northern part of Canaan. Other Israelites responded and helped Gideon and his band round up and execute as many of the enemy as they could capture. Israel controlled the fords of the Jordan and slew many Midianites as they fled homeward. The Israelites also captured and executed the two leaders of the Midianite army, Oreb (lit. the Raven) and Zeeb (the Wolf), east of the Jordan. The Midianites had acted like scavengers and predators, so these names were ironically appropriate.

"Among ancient nations, generals and princes often took the names of birds and beasts." [Note: Bush, pp. 105-106.]

This record of God’s great deliverance of His people illustrates what God can do through one person who, though weak in faith, is willing to trust and obey Him.

"It is not our responsibility to understand how God is going to keep His word and accomplish His work. It is our responsibility to obey Him and to do what He commands." [Note: Inrig, p. 135.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 7". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.