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THE COMPLETION OF THE LORD’S DELIVERANCE OF HIS PEOPLE. Judges 8:1-17
Judges 8:1. And the men of Ephraim said, etc.] i.e.—after Gideon had reached the trans-Jordanic side of the river, and when the heads of Oreb and Zeeb were brought to him. It may either have been while he was still pursuing the flying foe, or after he had returned from that pursuit; more probably the former. Though the Ephraimites and the Manassites were the descendants of two brothers, and might have been expected to be on the most friendly terms, the former people had long been characterised by a spirit of jealousy lest they should not have that superiority granted them which had all along been predicted of them from the beginning. Had not old Jacob, when blessing the sons of Joseph, set Ephraim before Manasseh? Had not Moses, in his last blessing, spoken of the ten thousands of Ephraim and only of the thousands of Manasseh? Was not Joshua of the tribe of Ephraim? Was not the tabernacle for a long time placed in Shiloh which belonged to the tribe of Ephraim? And, for a long period, were not their numbers very great so as to justify their being regarded as a leading tribe? (Genesis 48:19; Deuteronomy 33:17; Numbers 13:8 with Joshua 19:50; Joshua 18:1, etc.). Thus envy became something like a besetting sin of the tribe of Ephraim (Isaiah 11:13; Judges 12:1).
Sharply-strong and irritating words. Not that they cared for any part of the booty, but they were most sensitive that they should have the traditional priority conceded to them, and certainly that they should not be left in the background. It was really a question of pride, and, while this is offensive at all times, it was especially so, to introduce it in the midst of the Lord’s most solemn deliverance.
Judges 8:2. What have I now done in comparison of you? Most beautiful! Gideon at once concedes the place of honour to them. He is ready to underrate his own doings, when put in comparison with those of the Ephraimites. He knew the sensitive character of the tribe, and where the sting really lay. Hence without arguing the matter, he at once yields the point of their superiority to Manasseh, or rather, with a refinement of delicacy, he will not commit the whole tribe without their consent, but speaks only in name of his own clan, that of Abi-ezer. He uses a proverbial expression, “Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage (the full crop) of Abi-ezer?” He at once yields the point which they were most anxious to gain—the acknowledgment of their superiority.
While the proverbial expression employed is susceptible of a general application, probably Gideon’s immediate reference was to the signal service which the tribe of Ephraim had just performed. Gideon and his men bad but destroyed the rank and file of the enemy, while they had slain the two leading generals of the enemy’s army, and doubtless, in doing so, had made a great slaughter of their followers. The first slaughter commenced by Gideon and his men was the vintage, and the smiting down of many afterwards by the Ephraimites, was the gleanings. But these gleanings Gideon was willing to reckon of far greater consequence than all that had been done before, both because the two princes had been slain, and also because an enormous slaughter had been made of the enemy by the tribe of Ephraim (Isaiah 10:26).
The grapes.] The word is not in the Hebrew text, and should be omitted. The reading should be, “Is not the gleaning of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abi-ezer.?” [Pulp. Com.]
Judges 8:3. Their anger was abated.] Lit., their spirit was slackened. “His good words are as victorious as his sword; his pacification of friends better than the execution of enemies.” [Bp. Hall.]
God hath delivered them into your hands.] Whether they should take it well or not, he is faithful to his God in reminding these proud murmurers that the glory of all the achievements of that memorable day really belonged to God.
Judges 8:4. Faint yet pursuing.] (comp. 1 Samuel 30:10). They were exhausted partly from want of sleep, and partly from want of food, and partly from their great exertions in running over a distance of several miles, and contending with the flying enemy all the time. The Sept. adopts the word πεινῶντες but that does not cover the whole meaning. They were both hungry and thirsty, and also greatly fatigued. They were greatly in need of physical nourishment (Job 22:7). Keil renders it, exhausted with pursuing; but the English rendering seems a much happier one, and gives the spirit of the passage better. It was an act of bravery and a work of faith. [Lias.] It was more, it was a sacred duty, stern in character, yet imperative in obligation, not to leave a man alive of those who had been guilty of so great a crime, as ruthlessly to despoil God’s own vineyard. Not till he had reached the most eastern extremity of Gilead, did this zealous vindicator of the name of his God feel himself at liberty to regard his work as done.
Judges 8:5. Succoth.] Booths or tents (Genesis 33:17). This town was in the tribe of Gad, only a little way south of the point whence the Jordan emerges from the Lake of Gennesareth, and not far from the brook Jabbok.
Loaves.] Cakes. Such as might be soon baked, and not occasion any interruption to the pursuit. It was also a modest request. He asked for no fruits or wines, or anything costly. He merely wished the simple necessaries of life. And he gave as his reason that which true Israelites ought to have regarded as the best of all reasons. I am pursuing after the kings of Midian. i.e., I am doing God’s work on behalf of His people. I am acting for the public good.
Judges 8:6. Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in thine hand?] Instead of showing patriotic sympathy suitable to the occasion, they consulted only their own petty selfish interests. They did not believe, notwithstanding all the wondrous feats of that night and morning, that the kings of Midian were within the grasp of Gideon and his handful of followers. Just as many who stood around the grave of Lazarus, and saw how stern death yielded up his victim at the command of the Lord of life, did not believe in the true character of Jesus, but went their way and told the Pharisees. There are always hardened unbelievers of some kind in the midst of God’s mighty doings. These craven-hearted men of Succoth, overlooking the mighty arm of God which had just been laid bare before all eyes against the Midianitish oppressors of His people, still thought it was absurd to think of 15,000 men being at the mercy of 300. They rather thought that these kings would turn on Gideon’s men, and swallow them up, in which case it would go hard with themselves, should it become known to the kings that they had succoured the small army of their pursuers. Rather than run the risk of falling out with the enemies of their God and their people, these princes will not move a finger to assist the man whom God was employing to reckon with His enemies, and the enemies of His people.
The reply given was not a bare refusal to grant what every true Israelite should have been forward to give. It was not even the language of common respect, but a scornful taunt. This to a man who was performing a duty on which his God had sent him, was a contempt not so much against the servant as against the master. It was adding insolence to unkindness, and that in the special presence of God. The cowardice was the least of it; it was treason to Israel’s God. Compare Nabal’s churlishness (1 Samuel 25:8-11) and by contrast the conduct of Barzillai (2 Samuel 17:27-29; 2 Samuel 19:33-40).
Judges 8:7. Tear your flesh with thorns (Amos 1:3), or thresh your bodies with thorns and briers. It was a cruel mode of putting to death which was practised in these times. “Thorns of the wilderness” meant those that were strong, the desert being the natural ground for yielding thorns and thistles. When captives were thus put to death, the briers and thorns were laid on their naked bodies, and then some heavy implements of husbandry were drawn over them, so crushing them to death. Or sometimes they were whipped, stroke on stroke, with thorns and prickly plants. The Chaldee version has it, “I will mangle your flesh on the thorns, and on the briers.” It was an old punishment “to tie the naked body in a bundle of thorns and roll it on the ground” [Roberts] (2 Samuel 12:31; Isaiah 41:15).
The word דּוּשׁ here used means to punish severely.
When the Lord hath delivered Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand. He does not doubt for a moment but that it shall be so. He is sure of victory, though he has only 300 against 15,000—one man to fifty!
Gideon’s threat seems to have made no impression on the men of Succoth. They remained stubborn in their unbelief. “Reproof entereth more into a wise man than a hundred stripes into a fool.”
Judges 8:8. Went up thence to Penuel.] A place rendered for ever sacred by the fact, that it was the ground where Jacob their father wrestled with the angel and prevailed (Genesis 32:30-31) It was a sad indication of degeneracy, when the very ground under their feet spoke of the victory of faith, that they should distrust the God of Jacob, as if he would not be mindful of His covenant! Penuel was higher up towards the mountains than Succoth, which indeed was in the valley. The “tower” was built to repel invaders from the east, who generally came along the course of the Jabbok. It was a town in Gad, and not far from Succoth.
Judges 8:10. Karkor—a town on the eastern frontiers of Gad—as far away as they could get from the Israelitish army, which had now swollen as a river, from the rush of men out of all the tribes. It was the first spot of ground they had reached since the frightful panic they had experienced in Jezreel, where they reckoned themselves safe, for being now almost beyond the boundary line of the country, they did not suppose the Israelites would care to pursue them farther. The host was secure. They felt they could now draw breath, and were glad to take some repose, after the terrible trouble through which they had passed.
Judges 8:11. Gideon went up by the way of them that dwelt in tents—by the usual route taken by nomads and travellers. He seems to have gone round about somewhat, so as to come upon them from the north-east, which would be a great surprise, and being the season of night, it would renew the terror of the previous night. Not having yet recovered from the panic, they would feel as if new terrors would spring up mysteriously wherever they went, and so they would be unnerved for fighting. They would also very likely be unarmed and laid down to sleep, thus being unprepared for battle. The strength too of Gideon’s army would be unknown to them in the darkness, and doubtless they thought it far larger than it really was. But the principal element of weakness was the superstitious dread they had of Gideon and of Gideon’s God. A mysterious awe fell upon them in connection with the name Jehovah, and with the name of Gideon as His servant.
Judges 8:12. Discomfited all the host.] Struck terror into them. In the previous verse it is said, he smote the host, implying that he put them to death.
He took the two kings of Midian.] Zebah and Zalmunna were the kings proper of Midian. Oreb and Zeeb were but princes, or generals of the army.
Judges 8:13. Returned from battle before the sun rose.] The word Heres here translated the sun, is used with the same meaning in ch. Judges 14:18.; comp. Genesis 19:15, when the morning arose.
Judges 8:14. Described unto him the princes of Succoth.] Rather he wrote down the names of the princes. Seventy-seven men, so that there would be no mistake in punishing the right persons.
Judges 8:15. Ye did upbraid me.] Ye loaded me with reproach as if God could not deliver these kings into my hand. Now behold them!
Judges 8:16. He taught the men of Succoth.] The elders, or chief men יֹּדַע caused them to know to their cost, or by personal experience. He gave them a severe lesson, viz., what a dangerous thing it was to make light of God’s works, or to trifle with the glory of His name. Some think he put them to death, as he did the leading men of Penuel.
Judges 8:17. Beat down the tower.] Their “tower” was their pride. Of that are they first stripped, then of their lives. Gideon was no doubt acting by God’s directions in what he did. It was one of the days of the Lord, when He rises up to vindicate the honour of His name, and when every transgression and disobedience receives a due recompense of reward.
MAIN HOMILETICS.—Judges 8:1-17
I. The hateful character of envy and jealousy.
The view here given of Ephraim’s character is humiliating; yet it has two redeeming points.
(1) This tribe did respond to the call made to take part in the Lord’s deliverance from the presence of the oppressor, and they did materially contribute to the great triumph that was gained over the enemy. For they not only slew Oreb and Zeeb, but they effected a great slaughter of these foreign oppressors at the same time.
(2) They did acknowledge Gideon as the captain of the Lord’s choosing on the occasion, for it was in obedience to his call that they came forth, and when the victory was gained they presented the heads of the princes to him. These were two important features in a picture here given of Ephraim’s character which is otherwise dark. Their conduct forms an unseemly exhibition of envy and jealousy at a solemn moment in the history of the nation. To call it nothing worse, the moral meanness of their present action was to their lasting discredit.
1. They cowardly stood aloof in the moment of danger. We do not hear of the slightest movement made in that tribe when Gideon blew the trumpet to summon volunteers to fight the Lord’s battle. If they were to be the foremost in wearing the honours they ought to have been the foremost in meeting the dangers. Why did not shame fill their faces that they, the so-called mightiest tribe tarried at home till the victory was won, and then only they bestirred themselves to help their brethren? We should have thought they would come to Gideon on this occasion, with many apologies on their lips, and expressions of regret that they had not acted a more manly and a more loyal part to their God than they did. Yet they chid with Gideon sharply, as if they were the injured parties! “They should rather have cried him up for his valour, and blessed God for his victory.”
2. They made little account of Gideon’s Divine commission. They overlooked the fact that Gideon was but a child in the hands of his God, and that from first to last all the directions as to the steps that were to be taken were given by Him. This was a more serious blot still. The first particular we have mentioned was but cowardice, but this is to overlook the hand of God. In finding fault with Gideon in this matter they were really complaining of the management of Him who guided Gideon in all his movements.
3. Their only object appeared to be to gratify their own ambition. To do this at any time was a gross breach of good manners, but on such a day as this was for Israel, and in the presence of such striking proofs of God’s gracious return to His people, who had so long been lying under the heel of the oppressors, was at once infamous and wicked. Their sense of God’s honour was unspeakably small, and their desire for exalting themselves to honour was all-absorbing.
4. They sought their honours at the most serious risk. Had they not found in Gideon a man of great moderation, meek as regards his own rights, and forbearing as regards the conduct of others, a fire might now have been kindled in Israel itself at the very critical moment, when the enemy was yet only partially routed, and the danger was not all past. Thus the work in which God Himself was taking part might have been marred, and a new evil of civil war might have sprung up in Israel, equally if not more disastrous than that which they had with Midian.
5. Envy is one of many sister evils. Pride, jealousy, and envy, especially go together. Pride, indeed, was the first sin—the aspiring to be a god. From this a whole brood of sins spring, and all have a remarkable family likeness. But the parent is pride, which really means making self the most important of all things, and a desire that all things should become subordinate to self. The true balance of things which God has established is that, while every man should cherish self-respect, he is not to over-value himself, as being a dependent creature, and occupying a certain position which God in His providence has assigned to him.
The evil of this sin is seen, in that it thrust proud Nebuchadnezzar out of men’s society, proud Saul out of his kingdom, proud Haman out of court, proud Adam out of paradise, and proud Lucifer out of heaven. [H. Smith.]
Remember what thou wert before the truth—nothing; what thou wert for many years after—weakness; what in all thy life—a great sinner; what in all thy excellencies—a mere debtor to God, to thy parents, to the earth, to all the creatures. Surely nothing is more reasonable than to be humble, and nothing more foolish than to be proud. [Taylor.]
What is a man proud of—money? It will not procure for him one night’s sleep. It will not buy him back a lost friend. It will not bribe off approaching death. Land? a little bit of it will soon be all he will require. Learning? if he be equal to Newton, he has gathered one little pebble on the ocean’s shore, and even that one he must soon lay down again. [S. T. Treasury.]
Those trees bend the most freely which bear the most fully. As a proud heart loves none but itself, so it is beloved by none but itself. Who would attempt to gain those pinnacles, that none have ascended without fears, or descended without falls? Where the river is deepest, the water glides the most smoothly. Empty casks sound most, whereas the well-filled vessel silences its own sound. As the shadow of the sun is largest when his beams are lowest, so we are always least when we make ourselves the greatest. [Secker.]
Pride is an evil that puts men upon all manner of evils. Accius the poet, though a dwarf, yet would be pictured as tall of stature. Psaphon, a proud Libyan, would needs be a god, and having caught some birds, he taught them to prattle “the great god, Psaphon.” Menecrates, a proud physician, wrote thus to King Philip: Menecrates, a god, to Philip, a king. Proud Simon, in Lucian, having got a little wealth, changed his name from Simon to Simonides, because there were so many beggars of his kin; he also set the house on fire where he was born, that no one might point to it. [Brooks.]
The demon of Pride was born with us, and it will not die one hour before us. It is so woven into the very warp and woof of our nature, that till we are wrapped in our winding-sheets we shall never hear the last of it. [Spurgeon]
Like a snake coiled up in a bed of flowers, there is danger lurking under our fairest attainments; like the inflammatory attack, to which those are most liable who are highest fed, whose bones are full of marrow, and whose veius are gorged with blood, so we may be exposed to spiritual pride through the very fulness of our graces; therefore we ought to watch and pray against the great evil, and study to be humble. [Guthrie.]
A minister who on a certain occasion had preached ably and well, at the close of the service was accosted by a hearer with the exclamation, “That was a noble sermon, sir,” “Yes,” was the reply, “the devil told me that before I left the pulpit.”
6. Envy is an intolerant evil. “Who can stand before it?” It grieves that others should possess the good in which it does not share. It fired the breast of Saul, and he cast a javelin at David. It rankled in the bosoms of Joseph’s brethren, and they first cast him into a pit, and then sold him for a slave to strangers. It inflamed the mind of the wicked Cain so that he rose against his brother and slew him. It burned along with pride in the heart of Haman, and moved him to seek the death, not only of Mordecai, but of the whole race to which he belonged. It grudges even to give that to a man which he has fairly earned by his skill and toil (Ecclesiastes 4:4). It refuses even to the closest friends the slightest superiority over one’s self, though it is the Master himself who confers it (Matthew 20:24). From its envenomed assaults the best of men are not exempted (1 Samuel 17:28). It is one of those “roots of bitterness” from which spring “strifes, railings, evil surmisings, and perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds.”
II. The nobility of meek forbearance under false accusation.
What a refreshing contrast have we in the bearing of Gideon to that of the men of Ephraim! His spirit is calm and morally great, beautifully illustrative of Proverbs 16:32. He stands before us like a giant in the midst of peevish children.
1. He refrains from recrimination. He not only had ground for self vindication, but it belonged rather to him to find fault with his accusers. Why did not the men of Ephraim come forward of themselves long ago, and take the lead in rescuing the country from oppression? Why did they need to be called for at all to take part in such a work? There was no refusal of volunteers for such a cause, and why come in now to raise heart-burnings in the very midst of a solemn Divine interposition on behalf of the sacred nation, when they ought as one man to be prostrating themselves in the dust before Jehovah, and pouring out their gratitude from penitent hearts at the deliverance of their land from the incubus of oppression? But this true man of God refrains from rebuke. He knew that, however strong his case, that course would lead to strife (comp. 2 Samuel 19:41-43). He therefore wisely left off contention before meddling with it.
2. He had regard to the great interests that were in his hands. It was the moment of Israel’s redemption, when everything depended on union among themselves. To have got into strife now would have been a suicidal policy for the best interests of the country. It might have led to civil war, and plunged Israel into a deeper distress than that out of which they were just emerging. Besides, Gideon felt that he occupied the sacred position of being in God’s employment, His servant appointed to carry into execution a great work. All controversy among themselves, therefore, was not to be thought of, but gratitude and praise he felt should absorb all their attention. It was these things present to his mind that formed the basis of the answer which he gave. Public considerations, not personal; God’s presence, and God’s authority over him; God’s cause, and Israel’s salvation—these were the grounds on which Gideon made his noble reply.
3. He yields the place of honour to those who accuse him. (Philippians 2:3). “What have I done compared with what you have done? To you be the larger share of merit. If I have been first in the field, your gleaning has been more than my vintage. God has given to me to break up the enemy’s camp, but to you He has given the heads of two of the principal leaders in that great army, along with a great slaughter of the rank and file. What have I done to compare with you?” Here is an instance of the spirit that prefers another in honour to one’s self. He gives up his own claims in a moment, when he finds that they might prove an offence to those around him. No man was more humble of all that fought that day than was Gideon. From the shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people in moral greatness. He that ruled in Israel was willing to take the lowest place. He proves twice a conqueror, first over the hosts of Midian, and then more signally still over himself! The Macedonian monarch conquered the world, but entirely failed to subdue himself. The Bible great man is immeasurably superior to the world’s hero. The one affords a living illustration of “whatsoever things are just, pure, lovely, and of good report.” The other illustrates the case of a man sinking to the level of the brute, acting like a savage to those around him, and at last dying the death of a debauchee. If Gideon is a picture of moral greatness, then this is a picture of moral infamy; and to set it upon a throne is to hold it up to the scorn and reprobation of all time!
4. The spirit which he showed entirely pacified the fault-finders. “Their anger was abated when he said that.” How forcible are right words! Nothing more wise could have come from one who had a large knowledge of human nature. He put his finger on the spot where the soreness was felt, and poured on it the most soothing of oils, which at once produced the desired effect. “A soft tongue breaketh the bone.” “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” It was as if some spirit—perhaps that good angel that called him to this work and inspired him in it—had whispered in his ear the words which He long afterwards spake through a New Testament apostle. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourself, but rather give place unto wrath.” On this principle he acted, and so “overcame evil with good, and poured coals of fire on the fault-finders’ heads.” All men of right judgment while they look on, involuntarily exclaim, “The righteous man is more excellent than his neighbour.”
The practical good done to Israel was incalculably great. The spark was burning dangerously close to the tinder, and frightfully destructive must have been the explosion, had not a firm foot been instantly put down to extinguish it. A bitter internecine war was prevented just in time, which might have cost the lives of many thousands of the sons of his people, have kindled a spirit of deep hostility among brethren, and have perpetuated feelings of jealousy and malice for many generations. On Gideon’s brow this day was written in letters of white the motto—“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” He acted from the force of moral principle, to gain precious and Divine ends, and his name shall not die from the page of true fame. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
III. The condition of success in God’s service.
A great work was now being done for God. An enemy had bidden defiance to the God of heaven, had blasphemed His name, and not only wantonly touched, but threatened to extinguish the people whom He had taken into covenant with Himself, and who kept up the knowledge of His name on the earth. For that enemy the day of reckoning was now come. He must be destroyed, and that utterly. The jealousy of Jehovah for His own great name was now awakened. Gideon and his 300 men were the instruments chosen to fulfil the sentence of Heaven on these rebellious ones; and till the work was finished, not a man was at liberty to retire from his post. Though they were all in greater or less degree overcome with fatigue, from long fighting, want of sleep, want of food, and running over many miles of ground, yet they must not relax their efforts. The sacred call of their God was to persevere till their work was done. Thus only could success be legitimately won. It is in this condition that we now find Gideon and his 300 men (Judges 8:4) “faint, yet pursuing.”
These words contain a Paradox. Those who fight the Lord’s battles often faint, and yet they pursue. They are overcome, and yet prove victorious—their strength is gone, and yet they are more than a match for the foe—they are “cast down, but not destroyed”—the cedars become reeds, and yet are able to weather the storm—the confessedly faint do the work of heroes—each can say, “When I am weak then am I strong”—and can add in explanation, “By Thee have I run through a troop; by my God do I leap over a wall.” Or, in New Testament phrase, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me.”
Here an important principle is laid down for those who would enter into God’s service. It relates to the condition on which success is to be gained. Even when strength is exhausted, there must be the resolution to persevere. Wearied and weak, with small visible resources, while difficulties and dangers are numerous and formidable, the true worker for God must resolutely persevere. He is allowed to think only of victory—never of defeat. Even should his arm become feeble, and he be scarcely able to drag his limbs along, he must ever keep his face to the foe, and assume the certainty of his being a conqueror in the end.
The idea is not simply that of perseverance, but perseverance when human wisdom can see no natural means of holding out any longer. These men had fought till they could fight no more. Yet they followed on, implicitly obedient to the call of Divinely-appointed duty. Though the requirement of rest and refreshment was imperative, the fear of God was upon their spirits, and not a murmur of complaint was heard along their ranks. There was no call for substitutes to take their places, which could easily have been done. The rule was distinct—“By these three hundred will I save you … and let all the other people go every man unto his place” (Judges 7:7). By them alone they knew the work must be done.
This rule is of general application; for the principles which apply to any one work of God apply to all, and in every age, regard only being had to the change of circumstances. For general use the following particulars are to be noticed:—
1. The condition of success itself—what it is. It implies—
(1.) Every atom of strength must be put forth. Every muscle and bone in his body must be given. Not a drop of blood in his veins must be withheld. Nerves and sinews, all that hands and feet can do, must be absolutely surrendered. It is not enough that there should be a little zeal and some honest work done, or that some great efforts be made, and a man show himself to be in earnest, but a man’s whole being must be given up to the service of his God when the call is given. This, indeed, is simply coming up to the measure of what is reasonable, for we owe to God our whole selves—every faculty we have, and its fullest exercise. He may seldom require us to strain our energies in His service, but absolute dedication to Him of all we are, and have, is simply His just due, so that we are always to hold ourselves in readiness to offer to Him the exercise of our faculties, to any degree that He may require.
Thus as regards work. As to suffering, our Saviour himself is an example of the absolute surrender of every limb and sensitive part, when that is required to illustrate the deep designs of God’s moral government. He submitted to be “poured out like water and to have all His bones out of joint—His heart made like wax, and melted in the midst of His bowels; His strength dried like a potsherd, and brought down to the dust of death” (Psalms 22:14-15).
All this is greatly intensified, when we think that our life, which was forfeited by sin, has been given to us anew as the purchase of the blood of God’s own Son.
(2.) When strength is exhausted the fight must be continued by faith. When our resources are exhausted, and the work is not done, we are still to believe that God’s resources can never fail, and that, if the work in hand is really for His glory, and needful to be done, it shall be done without fail, sooner or later, as to time, and in the manner which He sees to be best as to means. To carry on the fight by faith is most glorifying to God, because it trusts His power to bring out the issue though the steps are not seen; it trusts His wisdom to find out the means; and it trusts His faithfulness, that He will never make light of His word of promise. The dependence of the creature on the fountain head is more distinctly seen, and seen to be absolute; while gratitude flows in a purer form, and from a deeper well-spring in the heart (Isaiah 26:4; Genesis 18:14; Psalms 147:5; Proverbs 15:11; Numbers 23:19). Hence we often find that though God does not despise the use of a man’s natural faculties, for they are His own gift, yet He often blocks up our way that we may see what a short way one can travel when left to themselves, and how necessary it is to keep close to Him who has said, “As thy days, so shall thy strength be,” and who always keeps His word (Isaiah 40:30-31).
(3.) We must never lose the hope of victory. The true soldier in God’s service must assume that he is invincible while doing God’s work faithfully and from right motives. To suppose failure would be to distrust Omnipotence, or to suppose that a Divine promise could be broken. When God undertakes a work it cannot prove abortive. He is the “Lord of hosts, mighty in battle” (Psalms 48:1, etc.; Job 9:4; Psalms 9:19-20; Deuteronomy 32:30; Isaiah 46:9-10). Yet, notwithstanding all assurances, faith is often weak and gives way. Even the conqueror of Goliath, when wearied out with perpetual harassment, gave way to despondency, and said “I shall one day perish by the hand of Saul; there is nothing better for me than that I should escape into the land of the Philistines.” A sad illustration of the weakness of faith on the part of one who had been solemnly taken under the protection of the God of Israel, through his being anointed with the holy oil, and who had already for several years been marvellously delivered from the malicious designs made on his life by a bloodthirsty man.
(4.) We must endure every possible hardship for the cause of God. Gideon’s men of faith had to fight all the night long without intermission, without sleep or refreshment, and to travel laboriously over hill and dale for many a weary mile, while they cheerfully submitted to the lines marked out for them. They were required not to “confer with flesh and blood,” but rather to “crucify the flesh” when it was necessary to serve the ends of high principle (Hebrews 11:36-37; comp. Acts 9:16; Acts 21:13). Love of our own ease must never exceed our love to the Saviour, or to the cause of our God. We dare not take up the cause of religion merely when it is comfortable, but turn aside when we meet with briers and thorns. Pliable could say, “come on, brother, let us mend our pace,” so long as his ear was soothed with pleasant talk about the crowns and sceptres of the better land on high; but when the Slough of Despond came in his way, he very quickly turned his back on the christian pilgrimage. The man that is wanted for God’s service must work on, even when he begins to faint, must keep to his oars even when he goes against the stream, and must go resolutely forward even when there is a lion in the way. A true servant of our Divine Master must be content to bear a real cross for His sake, never to keep back from duty through fear of man, or dread of the world’s scorn, but at all times to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
(5.) We must never give up till the work is done. It was not enough for Gideon to read the enemy a lesson by crippling his strength and scattering his army. All the members of that proud host had been guilty of a capital crime, and must have the sentence of death executed upon them in the day of the Lord, when judgment was being laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet. Gideon’s commission was to “smite the Midianites as one man” (ch. Judges 6:16). Their sin in despising the God of Israel was very offensive. All had been guilty, and all must perish, for now the Divine jealousy was awakened. So it was in other cases (Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Deuteronomy 25:17-19; Joshua 11:20; 1 Samuel 15:3).
2. The difficulty of complying with this condition. Because “fainting” is so frequent an experience of those who are resolved to persevere at the line of duty. This arises from—
(1.) The weakness of the natural faculties. “We are dust.” “Our spirits dwell in houses of clay, and we are crushed before the moth.” “All flesh is grass.” Many of those who are enrolled in God’s service are “bruised reeds.” None can say—“My strength is the strength of stones, and my flesh is of brass.” How is it to be expected that such persons should persevere when real difficulties in the way of duty arise? The most intrepid soldier sometimes trembles; the most robust labourer is not always free from languor; the soul of the most persevering pilgrim is oftentimes “much discouraged because of the way.” So in the discharge of the duties which every good man has before him in his place, partly through their toilsome character, partly through their multitude, and partly through their long continuance; his strength fails, his spirit droops, and he feels utterly unequal to the work set before him. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
(2.) The small success which crowns great efforts. This produces fainting. “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought.” “We have toiled all the night and caught nothing.” “We have borne the burden and heat of the day,” and only earned a penny. Sometimes the Missionary has but a single convert after years of sacrifice and privation. The Christian Minister, with the most indefatigable toil, can barely keep up his small number of adherents. The Christian Teacher of the young cannot sometimes point to a single case of a striking conversion.
(3.) The opposition of those who know not God. There are still outside the Christian city the Sanballats the (Horonite), and the Geshems the (Arabian), to hinder those who would build the walls of Jerusalem, and the race is scarcely less numerous than of old. Moses met with them in the Egyptian magicians; Hezekiah, in the blaspheming Sennacherib; Daniel, in the princes and presidents set over the kingdom of Darius; Paul, in Elymas the sorcerer, and in Alexander the coppersmith, who did him much evil. The advocates of gospel truth still meet with them in those who would exalt reason so as to destroy faith; in those who would magnify charity so as to efface the distinctions of moral character; and in those who would stretch out liberty, until it become all one with laxity. There are many who openly oppose, and there are still more who would secretly undermine, the pillar of gospel truth. No wonder, if those who are in charge of the building of Sion’s walls, should oftentimes find their hearts giving way, and their souls fainting within them.
(4.) The hanging back of those who ought to be friends. Nothing is more helpful to the Christian cause than the warm sympathy, and timely aid of true fearers of the Lord. How greatly was Paul comforted by the coming of Titus on one occasion (2 Corinthians 7:5-6); and how much were his hands strengthened and his spirit cheered by such true yoke-fellows as Timothy and Epaphroditus on another occasion (Philippians 2:19-20; Philippians 2:27). But how many hung back. Demas, who loved this present world; Hymeneus and Alexander, who made shipwreck of the faith; Phyletus, Phygellus and Hermogenes, with nearly all that were in Asia, who left their spiritual teacher (2 Timothy 4:10; 1 Timothy 1:20; 1 Timothy 1:0 Tim. 2:17; 2 Timothy 1:15), and a large number undefined (Philippians 2:21). How much greater would have been the success that crowned the efforts of the Apostles, if those who at first did run well had continued true to the end!
(5.) The stream of circumstances is often against us. It might be supposed to be otherwise, when the cause is God’s own, and His glory is concerned in its progress. Having all events at His disposal, why should not the Ruler of Providence arrange, so that the stream should ever flow in favour of the truth. Yet the balance of circumstances seems much rather to favour its enemies than its friends. So many occurrences are happening to hinder the cause of Christ, so many disappointments take place when there was a fair hope of success, breaches of engagements happen, rival competitors step in, the interests of selfishness come into collision with those of God and His cause, changes of opinion, and still worse, changes of feeling among friends are ever occurring, we are constantly being surrounded by new conditions of life, old friends pass away, and new friends are with difficulty made, strifes and divisions arise, and the gospel chariot is beset with hindrance on all sides.
(6.) Anxieties as to the issue of our efforts. This also leads to fainting, as they are long continued. This anxiety is greater or less as natural fear gets the better of faith. This, however, has in it more of weakness than of unbelief. The timid spirit exclaims—“Who shall roll us away the stone?” But strong faith calls out—“Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain.” The Israelites of Ezekiel’s days gave up the cause of God among them as lost. The life seemed to have gone out of the Church, and in their own minds they were likening themselves to a multitude of dry bones, which no preaching could put life into. “Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost; we are cut off for our parts.” But God, by His prophet, shows them that when the “wind” comes, along with the prophesying, the bones come together, and they stand upon their feet an exceeding great army (Ezekiel 37:11).
(7.) Struggles with indwelling sin (Habakkuk 1:2). “O, wretched man, etc.” (Romans 7:24). Sin is ever destructive of strength. It produces the hiding of God’s countenance, and so cuts off the soul from the supply of its strength. No calamity is so great as to lose the shining of that countenance. How earnestly do those pray for the help of that countenance who know from experience its value (Psalms 80:3; Psalms 42:5; Psalms 51:12; Exodus 33:18; Psalms 4:6-7). But there is only trouble when that countenance is hid (Psalms 30:7; Isaiah 40:27). Sin produces fear, and so unhinges every faculty. The soul cannot act with the firmness and resolution of one who has well-grounded hope, but is more than half paralysed at the thought that all things are against it. Sin acts like an incubus of mysterious weight upon the soul, crushing it down irresistibly (Psalms 38:4; Psalms 32:3-4; Psalms 39:10).
From all these and many similar causes, it is a frequent experience on the part of those who are engaged in any service for God, to faint in the fulfilment of their duty. Yet the rule is that though faint, they must be determined to persevere.
3. High purposes are served by this arrangement.
(1.) It shows the worth of the cause in which God’s workers are engaged. The excellence of the cause is to be estimated by what is paid for its maintenance. Here every atom of a man’s strength is first required. To that is to be added his faith, that God will put forth the resources of omnipotence, in so far as that is needed, to make the work a perfect work. The work is supposed to be so sacred that nothing must be wanting that man, the instrument, or God, the worker, can do to have the end accomplished. That end is really the honour of God’s great name. For this the universe arose; for this it stands. The glory of the heavens above, and of the earth around, is the glory of Him who made them. This is the one end of all existence, and the only supreme object for which man lives. Hence all the toil and sacrifice of which a man’s nature is susceptible, is not too much to give for the keeping up of the honour of the Divine name. To require this of a man shows the tribute of reverence which is due.
(2.) It is a test of loyalty to their God. This condition imposed on Gideon’s men showed how far they were willing to go in fidelity to Him whom they accepted as their God. Were they resolved that nothing whatever would turn them from their allegiance? The taunts and sneers of their fellows, the ease and rest which they would have secured, had they obtained substitutes to finish the work which they had begun, the trials arising from hunger and thirst, exposure and weariness, from which they intensely suffered, all were insufficient to make them depart by a single hairbreadth from the prescribed path of duty. The word of their God was more sacred to them than their life was dear, and they were prepared to die at their post, rather than show slackness in their reverence, or fail to carry it out both in letter and spirit. Their language was—it is not necessary for us to live; it is essential that we be loyal to our God.
Similar examples—Paul (Acts 21:13), Job (ch. Judges 13:15), Peter and the disciples (Matthew 19:27-29), Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:0), Mary, in choosing the teaching of Jesus as the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:41-42).
(3.) It illustrates the power of God’s grace in sustaining those men in their heroic resolution. There was more than natural courage, and power of natural endurance in that splendid example of self-sacrifice. There was an illustration given of what Divine grace could do, to sustain the soul under a great trial. Who could deny that the Spirit of the Lord came upon them as upon Gideon (Judges 6:34), for they shared with him in the doing of this work, so that they needed in some measure the same qualifications. The very fact that they were chosen specially by God Himself for the work implied, that from Him they would receive the qualifications needed (Judges 7:5-7).
On this needful sustaining grace, all who have any work to do in God’s service may at all times count. The constant assurance is, “I am with thee. I will not fail thee. My grace is sufficient for thee.” It gives victory over “the wicked one” in all that he can do (Luke 10:19; Ephesians 6:16; 1 John 5:18; Romans 16:20) victory over the world (1 John 5:4; John 16:33); victory over indwelling corruption; which is in some sense the greatest victory of all, for nothing so hinders the doing of any work for God as the working of sin in the heart. Sin is essentially a rebellion against God, and kills the spirit of obedience. It draws harsh inferences from God’s arrangements, and leads to the cherishing of hard thoughts about God’s character and ways. Yet Divine grace can make the spark of spiritual life exist in the soul amid a sea of corruption, and though it only glimmers like a feeble taper, it must continue to burn, notwithstanding all the rough winds that blow upon it from every side.
But where this seed of the new life exists in the heart, it must show itself in good works in the life to some extent. At any moment too, through some special quickening of God’s grace, there is provision for enabling a man to persevere in the doing of God’s work, even though he is at the point of fainting.
(4.) This arrangement furnishes strong cases of unswerving fidelity to God and His cause. Strong cases are needed to show to what heights true piety can reach. The garden of the Lord not only has its many specimens of little flowers, tender saplings, and all the ordinary growths, but there must also be the noble elms, the tall cedars, and the majestic oaks. So also in the Christian church, there must not only be the children, the feeble, and the mass of the inexperienced, and the undisciplined, but also some types of the strong, the mature, and those of princely features. There must be those who can represent the Christian character to advantage. One such case as we have here is worth more than a hundred, or even a thousand examples of the ordinary type. In regard to these latter cases, little impression is made on the world by them. They differ so little from the world’s own type of a devoted character. But these noble 300 are all of a class whom the world cannot match, before whom it bows and confesses its marked inferiority. Here are a handful of men absolutely overcome with fatigue, only 300 in number, all told, pursuing an army still 15,000 strong. They are parched with thirst, and famishing for want of food, while they have several miles to traverse on foot, ere they reach the enemy. They are all faint as regards their bodily condition, though not one of them is faint in spirit. They have still to fight against fifty times their number, but now they are utterly exhausted and wearied out, whereas then they were fresh and vigorous, so that in reality they were now fighting a more unequal battle than at first, when they had to face a foe nine times multiplied in number. Faith had need to be strong indeed, that could take victory for certain, under such circumstances as these. Truly, “these elders by faith obtained a good report.”
(5.) The creature’s insufficiency without Divine aid must be shown. When human resources dry up like the wady in the desert, and can no farther go, then is brought out the incomparable superiority of the ocean with its exhaustless fulness.
4. Great encouragements to persevere.
(1.) The constant presence of the Captain of Salvation. “Lo, I am with you always.” He was with His people when they were suffering in the iron furnace of Egypt earnestly looking on, for it was the members of His body that were suffering. “He was with the Church in the wilderness,” to protect and lead them; and, in every period of that remarkable history, His presence was made known as the Saviour of His redeemed ones, at one time “taking them by the arms teaching them how to go,” at another, “bearing them as on eagles’ wings,” and on a third occasion, rising up as a wall of fire round about them. They are sacred to Him, one and all, as those who are purchased by His blood, and whom He has received in charge to bring home in due time to glory. He utters all in one word when He says, “I will never leave—never, never forsake thee” (Isaiah 54:10).
(2.) Divine assurance is given of victory.” I will contend with him that contendeth with thee.” “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.” “Fear not, thou worm Jacob, for thou shalt thresh the mountains,” etc. (see Isaiah 41:14-15, also 10). The enemy at most shall only be able to bruise the heel; thou shalt bruise his head. On this occasion, not one of the 300 men fell down slain; nay, not one of them was wounded. God was “a covering to their head in the day of battle.” “A thousand fell by their side, and ten thousand at their right hand, yet to them it did not come nigh; for the Eternal God was their refuge, and underneath them were the everlasting arms.” Not a hair of their heads was touched. It was special, as when at the exodus from the land of bondage “there was not one feeble person in all their tribes” (Psalms 105:37). “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). Nothing is more uncertain, in most cases, than the issue of a battle. Napoleon said at the battle of Waterloo, “By all the rules of war I ought to have won, but my good genius forsook me.” But all who serve under a greater commander will without fail be able to finish by saying, “We are more than conquerors through Him that loveth us.”
“The weakest saint shall win the day,
Though earth and hell oppose the way.”
(3.) The good man is already begun to be victorious. He is faint, but not down. He is so far from being vanquished, that he is already “pursuing.” The tide of battle is turned in his favour, and ere long the field will be his own. The enemy’s ranks are broken, and he is a retreating foe. The Captain of Salvation has borne the brunt of the contest, and has decided the day; all that remains for His followers, is to follow up the victory. The soldier of Christ often fails to see that the position is won, for he feels himself grappling with circumstances that threaten to overmaster him, and with influences that are ever throwing him back rather than forward. Forces and events come upon him which are too mighty for his unaided strength, so that he is continually made to say, “O! when shall this terrible struggle have an end!” He is like a straw among the giant billows. But all is meant to teach the lesson of absolute reliance on his Saviour God, to bring him through the conflict. The rule is, that where Christ has already overcome, all His people must overcome after Him (John 14:19; John 16:33; Romans 6:14; Romans 6:4; Romans 6:6; Romans 16:20).
4. Many others have fought and overcome in the service of God. All the good from Abel and Abraham downward to the present hour. Many have passed through a hard struggle, but there has been only one termination in the end. “This is the Father’s will … that I should lose nothing” (John 6:39). The twelve times twelve thousand who were sealed in Revelation 7:0, before passing through the great convulsions recorded in subsequent chapters, all re-appear as the complete number of 144,000 (not a single unit awanting) standing with the Lamb, safe and joyful, on the heights of Mount Sion, free for ever from all the assaults of enemies, in Judges 14:0.
5. The reward of God’s service is unspeakably great. The world’s hero has for his prize wealth, honours, high station, a name on the page of history, an ovation from the multitude when he appears in public, perhaps a monument to tell to the future world his victorious deeds. Yet all that is but the applause of perishing men. The faithful good-doer in the service of God shall be received into the country of sinless perfection as his home, shall wear an incorruptible crown, shall have angels for his companions and ministering spirits, shall stand for ever in the presence of his Lord, shall receive robes, palms, sceptres, and harps from His royal hand, and shall rejoice for ever in His gracious smile.
5. Applications of this rule.
(1.) To the church of God collectively, in the great work of keeping up a standard for God’s truth in the world, and extending it to the ends of the earth. God’s servants are often “weary and faint in their minds” while endeavouring to fulfil this responsible duty; yet, though surrounded with dark clouds, and disheartened a thousand times, their resolution must be to persevere.
(2.) To any particular church or congregation, whose duty it is to shine as a light, holding forth the lamp of the Gospel to dispel the darkness of error and sin, and to persevere in doing so, even if the flame should be blown out by cold easterly winds, and nothing be left but “smoking flax.”
(3.) To any pious man who embraces opportunities for working among the ungodly, and who tries in the strength of his God to turn the wilderness around him into a fruitful field, but who finds the soil to be very hard, so that his work resembles that of boring through solid rock; yet, though baffled many times, he must not give up, but continue his efforts, hoping on against hope, and laying hold of promised Divine resources, and at last a great success shall come. The exhaustion of his own resources, while there is nothing but failure, proves all the more distinctly the need of prayer and the exercise of faith.
(4.) To all individual workers in the Church—to Christian ministers, to standard-bearers and office-bearers, to teachers, benevolent agents, conductors of prayer meetings, spiritual advisers, messengers of comfort, and good-doers of every class in the church as in the garden, in contrast with the open field whose aim is not only to bring in, but to build up, to nourish, to lead on, to counsel and warn, to stimulate and cheer, to admonish and to encourage. Though, both with the evangelist and the instructor, the work proceeds but slowly, and “all day long” they complain that “they have stretched out their hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people,” yet the motto ever is, Though faint, still pursue.
(5.) To every good man who strives to live a consistently righteous life in an ungodly world. He has constant sacrifices to make for the sake of righteous principle, living among those who know no such principle, or who practically disregard it. His worldly interest suffers, he is assailed with sneers and reproaches, he has to count on the world’s ill-will and persecution, and he has to fight his battles for the most part alone, except such help as he gets from the Divine countenance smiling upon him. Yet, though “rivers of waters run down his eyes while men do not keep God’s law,” and though he often raises the complaint, “Woe is me that I dwell in Mesech,” &c., he must ever resolve to pursue.
(6.) To the fearer of God in carrying on the work of his personal sanctification. While the work of Christ secures to every one who rests on it a complete title to heaven, a change of personal character is not less necessary to secure fitness for that holy world. Every expectant of heavenly bliss is called upon therefore to “work out his salvation with fear and trembling, for God worketh in him” (comp. 2 Corinthians 7:1, and 1 John 3:3). “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” He must become “conformed to the image of God’s Son, and so made meet to become a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light.” To get this work accomplished requires time, many wrestlings in prayer, much diligence in the use of the means of grace, and much of the Holy Spirit’s influences to work on the heart; yet all the while, he “sees a law in the members warring against the law of the mind,” &c. He is faint with struggling against the native depravity of the heart, and yet as the condition of success he must persevere.
Brevities on Perseverance.—One may go far after he is tired—French. Perseverance is rather a state of standing still than going on; perseverance kills the game—Spanish. “Hard pounding, gentlemen; but we will see who can pound the longest”—Wellington at Waterloo. It was perseverance that made Newton, Columbus, Washington, Stephenson, Wilberforce what they were. Perseverando vinces is a time-honoured motto.
IV. The blindness and obduracy of unbelief.
Blindness of mind and hardness of heart always go together. Those who remained deaf to all God’s pleadings with His people in every age are generally said to be a “people of no understanding.” The men who came around the Saviour during His public ministry, and saw most of His mighty works, still remained unconvinced to the end of His Divine character. After they had seen all, they spoke as if they had seen nothing; and near the close of His ministry, they still put the question, “What sign showest thou that we may believe?” “Having eyes they did not see, neither did they understand.”
It is the same here. These men of the tribe of Gad, whose ancestors in the days of Deborah “abode among the sheepfolds” rather than step forward with their brethren to the “help of the Lord against the mighty,” now show themselves utterly unconcerned about the great deliverance which the God of Israel was working out for His people with a high hand and a stretched out arm. The mighty fact which smote on the ears of men with the force of thunder, that in one night 120,000 of the dead bodies of Israel’s enemies were scattered all the way from Jezreel to the banks of the Jordan and beyond it, seemed to make no impression on these callous-hearted men of Succoth and Penuel. They could not discern from this stupendous fact, that this was the hour of Jehovah’s jealousy for the honour of His name, and of His indignation against the oppressors of His people.
They were thus blind because they would not see. They had long been living in the habit of rejecting the God of Israel, for we scarcely ever hear of any revival of the old spirit of loyalty to the God of the Covenant (Judges 5:17) on the eastern banks of the Jordan up to this period. They seem to have settled down into a chronic state of apostacy, and had become stone blind to all spiritual interpretations of the events of Divine providence. Their hearts were in their pastures and their flocks. They “loved this present world, and the love of the Father was not in them.” The flash of light thrown upon their characters by Gideon’s brief interview with them revealed that.
 Gilead means Gad and a portion of Mannasseh (p. 283.)
1. They did not see God’s hand in what was passing before their eyes.
2. They were callously ungrateful for the solemn deliverance wrought by the Divine hand.
3. They stubbornly refused when called upon to take any hand in helping on God’s great work.
4. They measured the issues of the case by sight and not by faith.
No wonder that such obstinacy of unbelief should become a mark for the outpouring of the Divine indignation.
V. The stern character of Old Testament punishments.
Admitting that the daring impiety of these men of Succoth and Penuel was eminently provocative of the Divine anger, there is an aspect of severity in the punishment to which they were subjected, as compared with the dealings in criminal cases in New Testament times. We hear of no formal indictment drawn out against the evil doers, no jury is empanelled, no witnesses are summoned, no evidence is led, no impersonation of the law sits in the place of judgment to keep the balance even, and there is no passing of a judicial sentence founded on the evidence presented. The one moment records the act of irreverence shown to the God of Israel, the next moment tells of the sentence swift and irremediable, which is to fall on the heads of the guilty. Where God himself is judge, and where conscience is at work, roused from its sleep, there is no need for any forms of law.
But why such severity of punishment? For doubtless Gideon did not now give way merely to a feeling of personal revenge. The moment was too solemn for that. In this, as in all else that he did, in conducting this sacred transaction in the service of His God, he would be guided by the secret directions of that Spirit of God that rested upon him till his work was done. We fear that the aggravated evil of the sin is not sufficiently appreciated by those who imagine there is too much rigour in the sentence inflicted. All sin deserves death; and for daring and defiant sin to God’s own face, it is fit that there should be a special sting in the penalty to correspond with the sting in the sin. It is farther to be remembered that this was one of the “days of the Lord,” when “judgment is laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet,” in order to show, on the one hand, what is due to the majesty and holiness of God, and on the other what is due to the evil of sin (see pp. 296, 297).
The difference of tone and attitude in the Divine dealings with sin under the Old and under the New Testament Dispensations is specially to be noticed. Under the former, there had been as yet no public standard vindication made of God’s claims on His rebellious creatures, so that an aspect of severity in enforcing these claims was absolutely necessary. Now that the Lamb of God has been laid on the altar, and the great propitiation has been made, the jealous God becomes “the God of peace,” and He speaks of repentance and pardon through the blood of Christ (p. 165, also 163–4, 138–9, 378–9).
FINAL DEALING WITH THE ENEMY—GIDEON’S LAST DAYS. Judges 8:18-35
CRITICAL NOTES.— Judges 8:18. Then said he, etc.] This must have taken place when Gideon arrived at home; for it was after his return to Penuel and Succoth, and the boy Jether was present, who could not have been in the battlefield. It may have been on the old battleground in Jezreel where the people would come flocking to see the terrible kings in fetters. [Cassel.] If so, what an impressive lesson it must have read to the captive kings, to contrast the picture they looked upon in that spot, only two days before, with the position they occupied now!
Whom ye slew at Tabor.] The incident is not recorded, but it would appear they had been murdered in cold blood, and not slain in battle; and Gideon, as next of kin, now reckons it his duty to act the part of an avenger of blood (see Numbers 35:0). Some imagine it was the execution of Gideon’s brothers, by the command of those kings as soon as Gideon’s purpose to attack the invaders was made known. [Lias.] Not likely, for the kings did not know they were Gideon’s brothers till now. Much more probable is it, that in one of the many forays made by these marauders on private properties, the house of Joash had been attacked, and while fighting in its defence, Gideon’s brothers had been taken prisoners and carried into the presence of the robber kings, who immediately ordered their execution. However it was, the tragedy was so marked, that, though many others were wantonly put to death, this one made such an impression as to be remembered above others.
As thou art, so were they,] in stately form and chivalrous bearing. They wished to give a complimentary answer as being the only chance they had, though a small one, to plead for their lives.
Judges 8:19. Sons of my mother.] A customary phrase where polygamy was so common. The sons of the mother had also the same father, but the sons of the father oftentimes had not the same mother. The sons of the mother were therefore full brothers, and hence the expression “sons of my mother” was reckoned specially endearing (Genesis 43:29; Psalms 69:8; Deuteronomy 13:6).
If ye had let them live, I would not slay you.] This implies that it was by a word from them that they were slain. They were therefore murderers, and justice must now overtake them. Gideon here shows his merciful spirit. He had no pleasure in putting them to death, but he was constrained to do it from considerations of justice, and the law of his God in acting the part of an avenger of blood. It was all but universal in that iron age to put prisoners to death, and often with circumstances of revolting cruelty. Tamerlane put Bajazet, the celebrated sultan, into an iron cage, and treated him as a wild beast, until, maddened with grief and mortification, he dashed out his brains by striking his head against the bars of his cage. Sapor, king of Persia, having taken the Roman Emperor Valerian prisoner, put him to death by flaying him alive.
On a higher ground, these ruthless men deserved to die, because they had wantonly touched the Lord’s anointed, and vilely desecrated the heritage of the God of Israel; so that even if Gideon in his clemency had spared them, Divine vengeance could not have suffered them to live (comp. 1 Samuel 15:3; 1 Samuel 15:8; 1 Samuel 15:32-33).
Judges 8:20. Said unto Jether his first born.] It was reckoned a deep disgrace by all who had a spark of honour in them to be put to death by a woman, or a slave (Judges 9:54). So these warriors felt it to be a stigma on their name, to have their death-stroke at the hands of a mere boy. Gideon also wished to teach his son in his youth to be the avenger of his country’s enemies.
Judges 8:21. Rise thou and fall upon us (1 Kings 2:46). Escape was hopeless, and, knowing that the practice of holding life cheap, which they had so long applied to others, was now to be applied to themselves, they felt it would be the less of two evils to be despatched by the general himself than by a mere stripling. It was also less horrible to die by a few effective strokes than to be hacked and hewed by hands incompetent to the task. Gideon complied, and so ended the days of the brigand kings. Barbarous and revolting work! excusable only when meting out merited punishment to flagrant transgressors. “To restrain justice at the proper time is to support sin, and not to correct, is to consent to the crime.” [Trapp:] “Bonis nocet qui malis parcit.”
The Ornaments] (comp. Numbers 31:48-54). The Hebrew word signifies “little moons.” They were crescent-shaped ornaments, generally of gold or silver, worn on the necks, sometimes the foreheads of men and women (Isaiah 3:18), and frequently on the necks of camels. Some think they were shining plates of gold in crescent form suspended from the neck of the camel, and hanging down on their breasts in front. And so the heads, necks, bodies, and legs of camels are still highly ornamented in Eastern countries [Bush.] The use of the crescent as a symbol of the Ottoman power is widely known among us. The ancient Ishmaelites were worshippers of the moon.
Judges 8:22. Rule thou over us. When the heavy incubus was removed, and things were beginning to settle down into a state of rest, the uppermost feeling in the mind of every reflecting man was that of gratitude to the noble man, who, through the aid of his God had done so much for his country. Partly by way of recompense, and partly to have a shield of protection for the future, the general voice of the nation was everywhere heard: “Let us make Gideon king!” Such an extraordinary feat of heroism they were ready to worship, and besides it did them honour as a nation. Their proposal they presented in definite form: first, that he himself should be their ruler for life; and then, that his sons should succeed him in perpetuity. They were not in a state to measure their words. They had among them a man who towered above all his compeers in courage, in capacity, in practical wisdom, and in ability to rise to the height of great occasions; yet one who was as humble and meek as any of them all, who was great in his moderation and disinterestedness, also in his self-command and fairness of dealing. Such a man had not been seen in Israel since the days of Joshua or Moses. “Come,” said they, “let us make him king, and his sons after him, and so bring back the golden age of our history.”
Most unreflecting choice! Had they got their wish, Gideon himself might have done well; but what a broken reed they would have had in Jether! Timid now as a boy, and bidding fair to continue as a boy all his life, he was swept away as a straw by the first brush of Abimelech’s strong hand. “Woe unto thee, O Land, when thy king is a child!” The people’s error was twofold—
(1.) In supposing that Gideon’s success was entirely of himself and not of God’s Spirit resting upon him; and
(2) in forgetting the fact that they already had a King in God Himself, and that any other who might be appointed must be His viceregent, and also must be appointed by God Himself.
Judges 8:23. I will not rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you. Gideon keeps them right. He saw their error in a moment, and felt that if he complied he would be the usurper of a place which Jehovah had reserved for Himself as King in Jeshurun. As the principles of his character had been deep enough to withstand the blasts of adversity, so now they have substance enough not to become evaporated before the sunshine of prosperity. These are brought out in 1 Samuel 8:5-7; 1 Samuel 12:12-17; Numbers 23:21, and other places.
Judges 8:24. Give me, every man, the ear-rings, &c. Rather the ring of his prey or booty, for the word is singular. This ring was of gold and valuable. The booty was got from the slain Ishmaelites, who seem to have been the merchant Midianites, the others being freebooters simply. The former were great traders, especially with Egypt, where they sold the spices and balms they got in the East, and were paid in silver and gold. But ear-rings, nose-rings, chains, and pendant-drops made of gold and silver seem to have abounded in Arabia as well as in Egypt. Rings of gold were often used as money in Egypt, as appears by the monuments. [Speak. Comp.]
Some would make נֶזֶס mean nose-rings instead of ear-rings. The word is susceptible of either interpretation, but nose-rings were chiefly worn by women, whereas here the rings were asked of men, and so were more likely to have been ear-rings. These latter were often worn by men. Probably one such ring, or at most two, were worn by each man. Reference is made to this ornament in Genesis 35:4; Exodus 32:2-3; Job 42:11, in all of which places the same word is used (נֶזֶס).
Judges 8:25. They spread a garment. Lit. the garment (ha-simlah), as if a special one used for such occasions. It was the upper or outer garment, and only a large square piece of cloth. [keil.]
Judges 8:26. The weight of the golden ear-rings.] Probably the weight exceeded his request, for they were in the very enthusiasm of gratitude. As the golden shekel was a little more in weight than two English sovereigns, the value of the ear-rings given would amount to upwards of £3,400 (1700 × 2). This would imply that at least 3,400 Ishmaelites were slain who wore golden ear-rings, a small number of the whole army. Those who wore such must have been of superior rank. At the battle of Cannae no fewer than three bushels of gold rings were taken from the dead bodies of the knights and senators that fell on that bloody day.
There are different words used in this account.
1. Saharonim are the “little moons,” or crescent-shaped ornaments of silver or gold which men and women alike wore upon their necks (Judges 8:21), and also hung round the necks of their camels.
2. Nezem, the ear-rings of gold (Judges 8:24-26).
 “Those golden ear-rings were ill-bestowed on such uncircumcised ears as Ishmaelites had.” Trapp
3. Netiphoth, not “collars” but pearl-shaped ear-drops, like the pendants of modern ear-rings (Judges 8:26).
 Thene ear-pendants made of pearls were peculiar to kings and persons of rank as compared with the simple rings wron by the other Midianites. The word natap means a drop
4. Anakoth. Necklaces or chains around the neck (Proverbs 1:9; Song of Solomon 4:9). “They put a band of cloth or leather round the animal’s neck, on which are strung small shells called cowries. The Sheiks add silver ornaments to these, which make a rich booty to the spoiler” [see Wellsted, Travels].
5. Aregaman bigedi, purple clothing, or garments of purple. They may have got the Tyrian dye from the shores of the Mediterranean. “This is the first indication of purple as a royal colour.” [Bush.]
Gideon had now great wealth at his feet, but all that he retained for himself was the spoil which he got from the Midianitish kings. His aims were higher than those of Clive, in India, (pure as he was when compared with others) as he walked amid heaps of gold taken from the Nabobs and others.
Judges 8:27. Made an ephod and put it in his city. Gideon has for the most part been severely condemned for this act, as if his uprightness had at last given way before the poisonous influence of the idolatrous atmosphere around him. Rightly interpreted, his conduct indicates no intention whatever in the direction of idolatry. Being civil ruler, his privilege was to inquire of God by the High Priest. The working coat of the High Priest was the ephod (see Exodus 28:6-12). It was the distinctive priestly garment. It had no sleeves, but went round the breast, and contained the Urim and Thummim, which were essential when inquiring of God. His object was then to inquire of God, or receive instructions from Him in all matters of special difficulty, where the exercise of his own judgment was insufficient. This was an intention wholly consistent with true piety.
But though the intention was good, the act was wrong; for God had already appointed a High Priest in another place to discharge these very functions. His act was, therefore, equivalent to the practical setting aside of what God had already done. In Shiloh was the ark, and there was the High Priest. But Shiloh was in the tribe of Ephraim, and Gideon felt sore under the jealous spirit so strongly cherished by that tribe. He might also think that they had sunk so low in their loyalty to the God of Israel, that they were unworthy to be the custodiers of the Divine oracle for all Israel. Therefore, he wished to have an oracle in his own city, and under his own care, conscious as he was of his own entire loyalty to his God. But it was not for Gideon to establish rules for the worship of his God, nor for any mortal man to assume that his judgment might decide anything in such a matter. Whatever was wrong in the existing state of things it was for God Himself to put right.
“A good aim does not alone make a good action. Gideon must have a good warrant as well as a good motive” [Trapp.] If Gideon supposed that because he had already once offered sacrifice on an altar in Ophrah and been accepted, therefore he might continue to do so as a rule, either by himself or by a priest, he entirely forgot that the circumstances were most special and not to be repeated.
An ephod thereof,] i.e., he made the gold and cloth, &c., which he had received into an ephod, which was the most costly part of the High Priest’s dress. The material was worked throughout with gold threads, and there were precious stones set in gold braid on the shoulder-pieces, and chains made of gold to fasten the parts. But there was no image, far less the form of an idol like the golden calf of Aaron.
All Israel went thither a whoring after it,] i.e., they made an idol of the ephod itself, giving that worship to the mere piece of dress which idol-worshippers do to a block or a stone. The homage of the heart was illicitly bestowed. That was perverting Gideon’s well-intentioned work to a very bad use, from which he would have shrunk back with abhorrence. Jerubbaal, the idol-destroyer, could never have knowingly encouraged the idol-worshippers.
The country was in quietness forty years, &c.] There was no special outbreak of sin in public, and so there were no public displays of Divine judgment made, though the waters of sin might be rising silently over the land. The forty years may be dated from the time of Gideon’s call. How powerful is the influence of a great name, when its greatness arises from its goodness! Would that every wearer of a crown might notice this!
Judges 8:29. Went and dwelt in his own house.] He makes himself as one of the common people, notwithstanding that no man before or after him had better title to live in a palace and wear a crown. The continuance of the name Jerubbaal was an honour to his memory similar to that which the name Israel was to Jacob.
Judges 8:32. Died in a good old age.] His days were long in the land which he had been honoured to restore (Genesis 15:15; Genesis 25:8; 1 Chronicles 29:25; Job 42:17). His God had carried him to hoar hairs (Isaiah 46:4), “though his last evil act were some spot to his white head.” [Trapp.]
Judges 8:33. As soon as Gideon was dead, they turned again.] The breakwater being removed, the waters rushed out. Sin, and especially the sin of idolatry was with them a passion. Well might it be said to them, “O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away!” After all the sharp lessons they had been taught, they still have learned nothing.
“Though woo’d and aw’d,
They are flagrant rebels still.”
Judges 8:34. Remembered not the Lord.] “My people are bent to backsliding from me. They have slidden back by a perpetual backsliding. Ephraim is a cake not turned.”
Judges 8:35. Neither showed they kindness.] Where there is no right principle in the heart, there is no foundation for trusting that the most solemn engagement will be kept, when a man casts off all fear of God, he is not likely to make conscience of doing his duty to his fellow men.
Certain questions grow out of this narrative which deserve particular notice, and which apply equally to all the heathen adversaries that fought against Israel and their God. It is distinctly conveyed, that the defeat of these adversaries in turn, was not merely an accident arising out of the fortunes of war, but was a special judgment sent upon them by Jehovah for the manner in which they despised His great name, and trampled in the mire the people whom He had redeemed.
One question which arises out of this, is—
I. Can the Heathen sin against light.
Did Zebah and Zalmunna know that they were committing great sin, in doing what they did to Israel, and their God? Is it not characteristic of the heathen that they do not know the true God; and if so, how could they be held guilty of profaning His name, and contemning His authority? They had no Bible, no sanctuary service for Jehovah established among them, no series of instructors among them like the prophets, no one to impart to them in proper form a knowlege of the truth about the true God. It was not only a rare event, but almost a solecism for a servant of the Lord to be sent with a special message of penitence to the king of Nineveh, as Jonah was. The density of the darkness might be gathered from the answer returned by the men of Ethiopia to Philip’s question, “How can I understand except some one guide me.”
Indeed the heathen universally “sat in darkness.” “Gross darkness covered” the multitudes throughout all heathendom. They were “without God, and without hope in the world.” Their description is often given as those that “know not God.” But if they had no proper knowledge of the true God, how could they understand the nature of His claims upon them, and if they did not understand these claims, how could their condemnation be just? It is manifest that we must look a little more closely into the subject to get quit of this difficulty.
Are we anywhere told, that the heathen are absolutely ignorant of either the existence, or the character of the true God? That they were relatively so, as compared with the seed of Abraham, is everywhere said, just as moonlight or starlight is inferior to that of the sun. But the question is, “Had they any light at all sufficient to constitute a foundation for responsibility?” This question we unhesitatingly answer in the affirmative. For where there is responsibility there must be light in some degree. Guilt lies in acting contrary to that light.
(1.) There is the light of nature. By looking on the works of the natural world, the first candid instinct of the heathen mind is not to worship the works, but Him who made the works, and to see glorious features of character shining through the works. It is not till afterwards, when men, disliking the presence of God, and trying to get quit of Him altogether, begin to give that homage to the objects of nature which ought to be reserved for the Framer of nature. This we take to be the meaning of the important paragraph in Romans 1:20 with its connection. That the heathen, though not instructed by revelation, know, or ought to know, something of God as a basis of their responsibility is clear from Romans 1:19; Romans 1:21; Romans 1:25; Romans 1:28; Romans 1:32; Acts 14:17. They are said to be “without excuse.”
Nature gave them light, not only on the existence and character of God, but also on the code of duty which He has laid down for human conduct. For “having not the law (written) they are a law to themselves,” etc. (Romans 2:14-15). This applied not only to a few solitary cases, when a sheik like Job rose up to instruct the people among whom he lived; but the law is written more or less legibly on every man’s heart. The universal conviction, not only that sacrifices, but that costly sacrifices were expressly needed to propitiate the superior powers, proved beyond doubt that they felt they were guilty. This is confirmed, too, by Romans 1:32.
(2.) There was also the light of the history of God’s Israel. The history of God’s Church in the world was, to these heathen nations, a kind of Bible about God’s character and ways. It was a great addition to the light of nature. The first grand display of His character given by means of His Church was when He smote the Egyptians with such terrible plagues, and redeemed His people from bondage with a high hand and stretched out arm. This was pitching the key-note. All the series of events that followed were such as to reveal the God of Israel to be immeasurably superior to all others that were called by the name of gods, and to prove distinctly that He was God alone, and there was none else. If the nations were not convinced of this, they had ample evidence to convince them of the sin and folly of choosing any other god, and of daring to touch the people that were called by His name.
This two-fold light undoubtedly these kings with their armies had, so that though their privilege was small indeed compared with that of Israel, it was yet sufficient to make them conscious they were committing great sin in rising up against the God of Israel, and wantonly destroying the people who were dear to Him as the apple of His eye! The impression made on all the surrounding heathen nations by God’s remarkable dealings with His people is indicated in such passages as these:—Deuteronomy 2:25; Joshua 2:9-11; Joshua 6:0; Joshua 10:1-2; 1 Samuel 4:7-9.
II. Does the guilt of the wicked entirely destroy sympathy for them in their punishment?
Are we to have no pity for such men as Zebah and Zalmunna when we think of their terrible fate, or must the fact that they defied the God of Israel, and put to death in cold blood so many of His chosen people, make us shut up all bowels of compassion for them? When we see innocent persons barbarously murdered by some monster of cruelty, we instinctively have far more sympathy with them than we can have for the perpetrator of the horrid deed himself, when he comes to suffer the last sentence of the law. There can be no doubt that guilt lessens sympathy; but does it entirely close it up? Or, if we are afflicted at seeing a criminal suffer, when he has brought it down on himself by his evil conduct, does not that seem as if we objected to the due reward of his deeds being measured out to him? Are we to have more sympathy with the man than with the administration of justice? Men’s sense of the evil of sin, and its awful desert is, in this world, so small, that it seems harsh and cruel when any heavy dispensation is inflicted. But the time is coming when another light shall be shed upon it, and when what now appears to be so small shall be seen to reach the heavens, and to call for the awful frown of Him who is the Guardian of righteousness, and purity and truth.
On this side of the subject there are some solemn statements in the Book of God. The inspired apostle, when closing one of his epistles, says, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ let him be Anathema Maranatha.” This many interpret to mean—accursed at the coming of the Lord, or for the Lord comes. But, however we explain it, the meaning is most solemn. If anathema had stood alone its natural force is—devoted to destruction, and ητω implies let him be, as if the apostle, speaking on behalf of all the good were to have no more sympathy with him, but to say—that is the only destiny suitable for him. Not to love Christ will then, in the clear light of eternity, appear so tremendous a crime that nothing but absolute destruction will, in the judgment of all, be regarded as the only fit treatment of it. Even now, speaking through the Spirit, this inspired man can say—Let it be so. All this corresponds with the words that shall come from the lips of the Judge Himself, “Depart from me ye cursed, etc.” It also corresponds with the phrase “the wrath of the Lamb,” and that other statement, “Again they said, Alleluia! and her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” Sympathy with the claims of eternal righteousness will in the light of eternity be so strong, as to lead the righteous to acquiesce in the destruction of their fellow-men who have rejected the Saviour.
But are we then to drop all sympathy with the wicked because of their wickedness? We do not read the teachings of scripture so, nor yet the teachings of our own hearts. The common feeling of humanity leads us to grieve at the spectacle of a wicked man suffering misery, though we know and admit that he deserves it. We say, it is not his misfortune but his crime. Yet we mourn for the man, while we emphatically condemn his conduct. We mourn that he should be of a wicked spirit, and allow himself to be led by wicked influences, so bringing down upon himself the righteous judgments of God. Our sorrow is not alone for his misery, but that he should be under the power of sin, and so necessarily be miserable. Grief at seeing the wicked punished by the hand of justice must always be accompanied by abhorrence of the guilt which has made the punishment necessary.
Thus it was with Him, who, in this, as in all other matters, is our perfect example. His lamentation over unbelieving Jerusalem was deep and sincere, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, &c.” (Matthew 23:37). Yet how severe His condemnation was of their sin may be learned from Judges 8:33 of the same chapter. Such was the depth of His compassion, that at the very moment when He was bearing His cross on to Calvary, He seemed to forget His own sufferings at the sight of theirs (Luke 23:28). Most wonderful of all, He shed tears over them when He thought of them as lost souls (Luke 19:41-42). Yet he abated not any of the heavy calamities that were impending over their heads, and which He Himself, in the exercise of His power as Ruler over all, would inflict upon them for their sins in due time (Matthew 24:4-28).
Our sympathies then should go out to the wicked, not as adhering to their wickedness, but in the way of earnestly desiring that they should turn from their evil ways, and receive Christ as their Saviour, that so they may receive deliverance in harmony with the laws of righteousness and truth. Our feeling towards the heathen world all over, should be that of profound sorrow, that so many of our fellow creatures should be without the proper knowledge of God, and the means of salvation by the blood of Christ, and to do our very utmost to extend that knowledge to the ends of the earth, in deep sympathy with them as our fellow men.
III. Does God set up the wicked as a mark for punishment according to the degree of their guilt, or by what rule?
Were Zebah and Zalmunna greater sinners than all the heathen rulers of their day that they should be singled out for special punishment? If Sisera was made an example of the divine vengeance, why should Jabin, his master, be passed by? Why should Og and Sihon, kings of the Amorites, be slain in battle, while Balak, king of Moab, is spared? Why should the population of so many of the towns of the Canaanites be all put to death, while those that dwelt in several others were left? Is it always the greatest sinners that are thus set up as a mark for God’s judgments; and, if so, would the common wicked escape such judgment, on the ground that their sins were not so great as to warrant such retribution?
A fatal error, we believe, it would be to suppose that any sin is of so slight a character as not to deserve some manifestation of the Divine frown, for sin in its very nature implies that the creature abandons its God, renounces His authority, and disobeys His laws. And as God is jealous for His own character He must frown on such a creature. If God were therefore to inflict on men the full measure of their desert in this world, He would send some visible and strong mark of his displeasure on all men without exception. But that is not now the rule. It is only in rare instances that special inflictions are sent. The rule is to give specimen cases of how God regards sin, and how He will deal with it. Thus Christ warns his hearers against the error of supposing, that those on whom severe calamities are sent were sinners above all other men. His solemn language is, “I tell you nay; but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-5). He informs them that their sins deserved similar calamities, and if they did not fall on them, it was of God’s mercy, and not because they were not equally liable to receive the same treatment.
Though it is often those that sin with a high hand that are dealt with most severely, many who sin in this manner are often passed by. Sodom was a city remarkable for its wickedness (Genesis 13:13), and was turned into ashes by the fire of heaven falling upon it, as an example to those that should live ungodly in after ages. Yet our Saviour speaks of some of the towns in His day as if they were worse in character, though they had no such vials of wrath poured upon them. “I say unto you, Capernaum, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for thee.” (Luke 10:10-15).
The rule then by which special visible manifestations of the Divine anger are made against communities, or individuals in this world, is not always the greatness of their guilt above other places, though it sometimes is so, but when the case chosen is suitable to serve as a specimen of what God might righteously do in similar circumstances.
MAIN HOMILETICS.—Judges 8:18-35
I.—The Troubled End of the Wicked.
1.—Preparations for his Fall.
(1.) He had to answer for his sins to Israel’s God. “God reigneth over the heathen.” He is “Judge of all the earth.” “Say among the heathen, the Lord reigneth.” “Every one shall give an account of himself unto God.” (1 Samuel 2:3; Ecclesiastes 12:14; Hebrews 4:13; Acts 17:31; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Romans 2:16.)
This is God’s world; and all its inhabitants are His creatures. To Him and Him alone, are they responsible for their conduct. It was this God—Israel’s God—whom these kings wickedly dared to defy. It was with Him they were really at war. It was with His power they dared to contend, and His holy name which they despised. It was His children, on whom they inflicted so many bleeding wounds, and whose lives they so capriciously destroyed. For every act of impiety, therefore—for every wanton exercise of power, and every barbarous deed, to the God of Israel were they really responsible as their Judge. Thus was preparation made for an evil day.
(2.) The sinner’s blindness to his sin, and its consequences.
These men of the desert, doubtless, had their memories filled with reports of what the God of Israel had done, and how superior He was to all the gods of the nations, and it was their duty to have prosecuted this knowledge to its just conclusion. But when they saw the rich valleys and smiling plains of Israel, and found a people weak as children only defending them, their lust for possessing so valuable a prize rose within them; they shut their eyes to every consideration of moral right, and the fear of God, and grasped at the booty which was so easily within their reach. Men cannot look upon sin with open face so long as their moral vision is not impaired, for it immediately raises a struggle within one’s own breast. The will strongly desires what is forbidden, and conscience thunders against it. To save this struggle the man shuts his eyes, and makes himself blind both to sin and its consequences. By getting into a habit of not looking at sin in its evil nature, and not reflecting on its sad consequences, a man gradually becomes practically blind, so that he is able to commit sin with little remorse. Satan, meanwhile, greatly assists the soul in this self-blinding process, by the fascinating pictures which he sets before it of the gratification of sinful desires, and by turning away the attention from the voice of conscience. Indeed, that tremendous power which God has put into the soul to represent His own authority over it, he attempts to silence by drugging it; just as Mercury, when he proceeded to the task of putting Argus to death, found that he could not succeed on account of that monster having one hundred eyes, and when some of them slept, others were always awake, so that he could not come near him to effect his purpose. He, therefore, thought of drugging him all over, and having at last got all the eyes to shut, he speedily accomplished his object. “O, sir,” said a Christian lady to a young man of noble extraction, who was going on thoughtlessly in a wild career of sin, “O, if you would but think—only think?” “I cannot think,” he replied; “I dare not think—thought kills me!” When conscience is stifled, when Satan is listened to, when a deaf ear is turned to Christ, when reason is kept under and passion is allowed to reign, then there is darkness, and the works of darkness are done. (See 2 Corinthians 4:4; John 12:37-40.) On the Deceptive Character of Sin, see p. 197, etc.
(3.) The wicked’s persistent continuance in sin. These heathen marauders having been successful for one year in the work of spoiling Jehovah’s vineyard, and apparently no harm coming of it, they returned a second year, then a third and a fourth, until seven years had passed. They would begin to think that this people were deserted of their God, or possibly, all that they heard of Him and His doings were but dreams of the past. At any rate, there was no cloud in the sky to make them afraid. Why should they not continue to fatten on these fat pastures, and gratify themselves to the full? “To-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.” “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is set in them to do evil.”
While they were thus imagining that the Lord did not see, neither did the God of Jacob regard, the plans of Heaven were maturing. He who is angry with the wicked every day, was whetting His sword and bending His bow. Time was allowed for the evil-doers to repent of their conduct, but as of this, after seven years’ trial, there were no symptoms, God arose from His place and executed judgment on His adversaries. This persistence in sin shows an advance in blindness of the understanding and hardness of heart.
(4.) The certainty that the wicked’s sin shall in due time find him out. How confounding it must have been for these kings, now to find themselves helpless prisoners in the hands of the very brother of the innocent men, whom in the wantonness of their power they had slaughtered so recently at Mount Tabor, for no other alleged crime than that they had endeavoured to defend their property from the spoliation of freebooters! Then their sin seemed to them a thing to mock at; now it stands out so serious a thing as to cost them their lives. Many other ruthless deeds, doubtless, they had perpetrated. Now this one sin is made the means of bringing down meet punishment for all the rest. Every perfection of Jehovah’s character demands that every sin be at some time visited with its just desert. His sovereignty regards it as an outrage of the creature against the authority of the Creator. His jealousy will not suffer that any spot or stain should exist, under the moral government of One who is so greatly to be feared. His justice will not allow that the standard of righteousness be in any degree lowered, beyond the point of absolute perfection. His holiness will not permit that any instance of sin should occur in any part of His pure universe, without some fit mark being put upon it of His detestation. His omniscience searches out the culprit—His omnipresence holds him fast in every place, and His omnipotence lays him for ever low in the dust; while Divine Providence causes every gate to be shut against him among the creatures, so that he shall have none to associate with, and none to pity him in the universal creation of God. How much do we owe to Him who, to every believer, prevents all this by the endurance of the bitter death of the cross!
2. The greatness of his fall.
This is measured by—
(1.) The height from which he fell. Over that vast host, that filled the valley and covered the slopes of Jezreel, these men bore absolute sway. A whole nation living in tents were as grasshoppers before them. Whom they would they slew, and whom they would they kept alive. To one they said Go, and he went; to another Come, and he came; to a third Do this, and he did it. They formed the double helm that guided the movements of that huge host. Their hearts were filled with proud and exultant feelings, as they looked on the magnificent spectacle of men and camels, crowding on each other over all the plain as far as the eye could reach, all glittering with jewels of silver and jewels of gold, the halfmoon-shaped ornaments conspicuous everywhere, as became the worshippers of the luminary of the night sky. Nature was calm around them, as they cursed the God of Israel, and trampled His people down before them as dust in their path. For days and months the sun shone on peacefully as before, and they were wholly unconscious of danger or surprise.
But the decree had gone forth; they had been weighed in the balances and found wanting; their days of sin and cruelty were numbered. From the watch-tower in the skies a messenger came down to tell, that the God of Jacob had seen the wrongs inflicted on his chosen people, and was about to fell the oppressor to the dust. As in a moment, the avalanche fell on the tents of Midian; the host ran, and cried, and fled. But who could escape the wrath of Him who could set all the resources of nature against them? They were cut down as the grass; they withered as the green herb—
Like the leaves of the forest, when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen;
Like the leaves of the forest, when autumn has blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
And now the two leaders stand all alone, stripped of everything, not a man of their armies left, waiting to receive their death-stroke at the hands of a mere boy!
(2.) The fall came irresistibly; nothing could withstand the destructive agency when it came. Who could stop that panic that arose in a moment at the midnight hour, when the signal was given by the braying of so many trumpets and the breaking of the pitchers? From that moment the work of death-dealing went on till only a speck remained on the distant mountains, of the dense cloud of men that obeyed the commands of these mighty chieftains. “They were chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind.” It was a precipitous fall, as if they had been hurled violently over a cliff.
(3.) They were utterly helpless in their fall; they seem not to have been able to use a single stroke in beating back the wave. Not a man of Gideon’s army was killed nor even wounded; the 300 remained intact to the end. “None of the men of might in that hostile camp did find their hands.” What a picture of helplessness when 15,000 men should have allowed themselves to be either cut to pieces or scattered by 300 men, whose strength was completely exhausted—that is, at the rate of every fifty men allowing themselves to be smitten by one man without returning a blow!
(4.) The fall was unexpected and rapid. Nothing seemed more preposterous than to suppose, that a few stragglers gathering together on the mountains of Manasseh should inflict any serious blow on the myriads of Midian; and if by any means some advantage had been gained for Israel, the natural thought was, that it must have been only by slow degrees that these spoilers could have been driven out of the country. But in little more than a single day is the work done. When the day of reckoning comes, it is “as a thief in the night.” “Blessed is he that watcheth.” “The wicked are chased away as a vision of the night.” “When they are saying Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh.” When a wicked man has been reasoned with, has been implored to repent and believe, and has had much patience exercised towards him while yet he does not return, then he is “driven away in his wickedness”—he “dies in his sins.”
5. The Fall was ruin—irremediable and final. “The Midianites lifted up their heads no more” (Judges 8:28). Forty years passed away, and Gideon was still alive, but all that time we do not hear a single sound from the land of Midian against Israel. They had received so terrible a lesson, that they trembled at the very thought of contending with so great a God again. The Fall here recorded was not merely a reverse, or even a heavy misfortune, which, as the wheel turns round might be again reversed, but it was a casting down to destruction; so that while contemplating what God had done we might well exclaim with the prophet, “O wheel!” (comp. the Fall of Sisera pp. 299–307).
II. The honour attending the last days of the righteous man.
We place the two characters in contrast, the righteous and the wicked. They differ in character and conduct in active life, and they differ in the end of life. The wicked we have seen spend life in fighting against God, and in the end they have many sorrows. But the righteous go through life walking with God, trusting in Him, led by Him, and acknowledging Him in all their ways, and in the end all things smile upon them (see Psalms 32:10). There is much instruction to be got in studying the history of both characters, each of them taken by itself. But there is much additional instruction to be had from looking at the two in contrast, and hence we find them often placed together in scripture, one against the other so as to be contrasted. We sometimes see them in pairs as Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David, and others. Again we see them in communities generally, the people of God on the one hand, and those who have cast off God on the other. At one time, we see promises and many gracious words spoken to the righteous, while threatenings and forebodings of future wrath are held out to the other. But the end of life is generally set forth as the time when the contrast becomes most complete. The righteous are then dealt with as jewels, and the wicked as dross, “then shall we return and discern between the righteous and the wicked” (see Malachi 3:17-18; Matthew 3:12; Matthew 13:30; Matthew 25:34; Matthew 25:41; Matthew 25:46; Luke 13:28-29.)
Here what a contrast between the heads of the Midianitish army, and the head of the army of Israel. We have seen the one go down under a dark cloud never more to appear, but, turning to the other side, we see a name destined to go down to everlasting remembrance. “Light is sown for the righteous.” “His horn shall be exalted with honour.” What was the kind of honour which Gideon had in his last days?
1. It was in the moral greatness of his character.
It was not the honour of wealth, though he had that; not the honour of being a great patriot though he had much of that; not the honour of having a public ovation from the people, though that also he had to the full; nor was it that highest distinction which any people could offer to such a man, when with one consent they asked him to become their king. No; his honour lay in refusing a crown, not in having it offered him. Moral greatness is the true greatness of a man, when he places right principle higher than himself, and prefers to do what is best to be done, rather than what might suit his own interests, or is most agreeable to his own will. Gideon made the glory of God his chief good, and all his thoughts continually circled around that. For the sake of the name of his God, he braved every blast in the rough days of adversity, and now in the warm sunshine of prosperity, when the temptation to have his own name put forward at one point, in place of his God, is set before him, he meets it with a “Get thee behind me, Satan”—“I will not rule over you, neither shall any son that I have—the Lord shall rule over you.”
Gideon quite comprehended the position, which, alas! few or none else seemed to do. Israel was the Lord’s people. They belonged to Him as His redeemed, His chosen, whom he raised up for a special purpose in the world. They were His alone, and could belong to no other. He had also made Himself over to them to become theirs. He was their God, and therefore their King. It was wrong for them to think of any other head. All this was settled once for all at the outset of their history, and it was settled by solemn covenant. It was therefore an impious thought to suggest that a mere man, or any other than the Eternal God Himself, should be their Judge, Lawgiver, and King (1 Samuel 8:5-7).
Gideon’s act was, therefore, far above that of a Cincinnatus, who, after his great feat in accomplishing the deliverance of his country from a great danger, cared not to accept of any high rewards, but quietly returned to his farm and his plough. Another case of moral sublimity we have in Washington, who, though he permitted himself to be called by the title of President, yet refused all thought of royalty. Julius Cæsar was thrice presented with a kingly crown, and this he as often refused; but policy rather than principle appeared to be his motive. Cromwell reached the highest pinnacle of success, and chose to be called Lord Protector rather than king, but this too seemed to be on the ground of policy. Gideon alone, of all the characters of history, was by the unanimous voice of the nation hailed as king, and yet at once and with decision, on the high ground of a Divine arrangement, he rejected the tempting proposal.
2. He enjoyed the highest respect of his people. So many things, both in his character and conduct, were fitted to excite admiration, that it is not wonderful if he had the highest respect of all the good from Dan to Beersheba. The modesty of his demeanour, his singular meekness in dealing with the Ephraimites (Judges 8:1-3), his implicit obedience to the instructions given him by the angel, his bold opposition to Baal, as the root of his country’s evils, his rising to the height of the great occasion when the Midianites had so be fought with and conquered, and the amazing success which in less than two short days had crowned his extraordinary exertions—these and other elements raised him so high in the people’s estimation, that the whole nation felt they never could do him enough honour. The whole land was full of his fame for forty years. In fact, even in Israel’s remarkable history, there was nothing brighter to speak of or to sing of, than of his name and his doings. He lived in the hearts of his people. If he asked their silver and their gold, he might have it as much as he chose to name (Judges 8:24-26). If he wished them to carry on their worship in his city Ophrah, they came there at his desire. If they even abstained from the rites of Baal worship, which so many loved in their hearts, it was out of respect to his name that they did so, for so long as he remained with them no altars of Baal were frequented in Israel.
3. The whole land enjoyed peace for his sake. “The country was in quietness forty years in the days of Gideon.” This was a high honour conferred on any man to say of him, that for his sake the whole land enjoyed the inestimable blessings of peace for so long a period. Such was the honour put on him by Divine Providence. For doubtless there were many secret causes of provocation among all the tribes, during the most of that period. Idolatry was the besetting sin everywhere, and, but for the strong influence of Gideon’s name, it must have broken out publicly in not a few places. Gideon, too; was ever thought of as the Jerubbaal—the conqueror and adversary of Baal, and this must have done much to keep back the rising tide of idol worship, and so to ward off the Divine judgments. He lived in his own house in peace, for so long a time, and the land had no special troubles for his sake.
4. He was blessed with long life—“died in a good old age.”
This phrase, which is used also of Abraham (Genesis 25:8) and of David (1 Chronicles 29:28), and the similar phrase “full of days” which is spoken of Job (Job 42:17), implies that the man who saw such a length of days was visibly blessed of God. In that age, when God taught his people so much by emblems, there was a deeper significance in the enjoyment of temporal prosperity as the sign of the Divine favour, than there is now under the Dispensation of the Spirit. In nearly all the descriptions given of the manner in which God will bless the man whom He loves, it is the language of temporal blessing that is used. In Job 5:26, the man who submits to God’s correction, after experiencing many deliverances from God’s gracious hand, is promised that at last he “will come to his grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in his season.” And among the numerous proofs of the Divine favour, which are promised to the man who makes choice of God as his own God, and looks to Him as his refuge, the list closes with the blessing of long life (Psalms 91:16). The mere prolongation of life itself is a natural blessing, but it is chiefly of value when it is given as a mark of the Divine favour.
It cannot indeed now be predicted with the same definiteness, as in the days when the teaching of the Church was by symbols, that external prosperity, or the prolongation of life, is an indication of the Divine favour to the possessor above other men; indeed, it is one of the mysteries of Divine Providence, that the way of the wicked prospers more frequently than that of the righteous, though not so much in the matter of long life, as in that of external prosperity. But that the righteous have immensely the advantage, both from the nature of the case, and from the assurances of Scripture, is clear. The righteous have always God’s blessing with their portion, which, even if that be small, it will yield more real enjoyment, than would a princely fortune to the man on whom God frowned (Psalms 37:16; Psalms 37:11; Psalms 37:25, &c.). In Isaiah 65:20, we have a remarkable statement respecting long life as a sure indication of the Divine favour, implying that when God rises up to bless His Church, there will no longer be persons who have only an infant’s age, nor any man called “old,” who has not filled up the days of an old man (such will be the care which God in His Providence will exercise over him); for he who will be reckoned only a child in those days will really have lived 100 years, and the sinful man who dies at the early age of 100 years will be reckoned accursed of God, for not having nearly reached what shall then be the common limit of life. An eminent thinker defines the word “sinner,” to mean, one who misses the mark, and translates the last line of the verse thus: “He who misses the mark of 100 years, will be reckoned accursed of God,” because his life will appear cut short, so that he does not live half his days.
5. The good man’s grievous errors. However bright the name of Gideon, though it shines as a star of the first magnitude in the Old Testament sky, it is not without its spots (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The Bible good man is, in this world, one who was originally a bad man, now in process of being made good. God Himself is the worker; the means employed are of His choosing, and the work will in due time be made perfect, but as yet it is only in process. Hence the struggles of the “old man” with the “new man,” and the strivings of the “Spirit against the flesh” (see Galatians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24). The extinguishing of human depravity in any human heart is not effected instantaneously, but is a gradual operation. Hence the proper light in which to look at any good man is not to regard him as of a different mould from other men, or taken from a different stock, but to regard any spiritual excellence of character which he has above other men, as wholly due to the grace of God working in him.
Gideon was guilty of the sin so common in his time of polygamy. “He had many wives.” This was a distinct violation of the law of marriage even by the light of nature (Genesis 2:22; Genesis 2:24; Malachi 2:14; Malachi 2:13), and more emphatically by the light of the written law of Moses (Exodus 20:14). But there was so much fog in the atmosphere of those days, before the glorious sun had risen in the sky, that men could but dimly read the meaning of heaven’s laws. Thus, surrounded by the corrupt practices of every other community on earth, even some of the best of God’s people gave way before the evil example (1 Corinthians 15:33). But the light of those times being small relatively, certain evil practices were not condemned so strongly as they are in the clearer light of gospel times (Matthew 5:31-32). It is said with regard to many points of conduct, “The times of this ignorance God winked at”—passed over. The sins were seen, were hated, were condemned, but God did not in many cases execute the sentence they deserved. Yet sin in every case, and in every age, is condemned by God quite as much among His own people, and even more, than among others (see on this whole subject pp. 322–4).
Gideon allied himself with a Canaanitish family. The maidservant whom he married, of the house of Shechem, appears to have belonged to the idolatrous portion of that clan (see Judges 5:31; Judges 9:18, &c.) This was the sin which had been forbidden more expressly than any other, and which led to many a dark day in the homes of Israel (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Judges 3:6-7). Bitter consequences also came down on Gideon’s house, as the sequel will show.
Gideon made an ephod and put it in his city, as a point of worship for the people. We have already spoken of this, and pronounced it an error of judgment, rather than of intention. He had not, so far as appears, the most remote intention of encouraging idolatry. That was at the very antipodes of his thoughts and wishes. But as Shiloh, the only centre for the worship of Israel’s God in the land, was in the tribe of Ephraim, and as the Ephraimites had already shown themselves so sensitive in their dealings, both with himself and with the men of Manasseh, he was apprehensive lest, on the occasion of one or other of the frequent visits that might be made, from persons of his own and other tribes in the north, to Shiloh, some spark might kindle a flame of resentment, which would both put an end to the worship, and envelope the country in civil war. There was the greater reason to fear this, that Ephraim contained such large numbers of the idolatrous classes. The intention, here, we believe, was only for good, for Gideon was eminently a man of peace, and had already shown that he could make large sacrifices to avoid a quarrel with brethren.
But he was in serious error. He tried to do a right thing in a wrong way. God had already appointed the place of His worship, and also the men who should minister to Him in the service. And not even a Gideon durst interfere to make any alteration on it before Him. If such dangers as Gideon feared actually existed, Jehovah was well able to take care of his own service. But this God-fearing man thought that, as he had already been taken into the service of Jehovah, he was not acting presumptuously now in wearing the priest’s ephod, or working dress, and so personating that official in his office. But he had received no call to enter into that office, though on one occasion he was specially called to erect an altar and offer sacrifice (ch. Judges 6:25, &c.). It was therefore a false step. What keeps everything right in the matters of God, is to act implicitly at His command. In place of this, Gideon now acted according to his own judgment. Evil results followed. The first step taken being wrong, another and another went further from the line of duty, until at last the people fell into the old pit of idolatry—the very last thing which the good man who took the first false step ever dreamt of.
When Epicurus, the founder of the celebrated school, made his summum bonum consist of that which ministered best for pleasure, he little imagined to what lengths of impurity and bestiality, many of his disciples would carry his system. Neither did Socinus seem to realise at first, how far the doctrine or principle would carry him, of making reason, the judge of everything the Bible declared about God. And all through Church History especially, we have many warnings not to trust to human reason, when it would determine for itself in the face of any commandment of the Lord.
Yet, with all these serious drawbacks, there are so many elements of excellence in Gideon’s character, that it shines resplendent on the page of Scripture history, and is remembered down to New Testament times, where again it is taken up (Hebrews 11:32, &c.), and held up as a bright picture to be looked at to the end of time. From the days of Joshua to those of Samuel, no such full account is given of any other of Israel’s heroes. Through the long decline of a green old age, he is continually pointed to, as he goes out and in among the people, as Jerubbaal, the man who dared to fight and was able to conquer Baal. And when he dies at last, it is when the field has long been clear of enemies, and when he is surrounded only by friends. Amid the regrets of all, with the blessings of love poured on his head, and the gifts of honour laid on his bier, he is put into his father’s sepulchre, and laid in the family vault, leaving his praises to be sung, and his example to be followed, by many in every home of the land he loved so well.
N.B.—We have now reached that stage in our remarks on the matter of this Book, that we have practically discussed all the more important principles it contains, so that in what follows it is not necessary that our comments should be otherwise than brief, and that frequent references be made to the thoughts already given.
THE PREFACE TO CHAPTER 9
1. The immediate result of Gideon’s death. This might be expressed in one short line. The people relapsed into idolatry. Notwithstanding all the long-continued lesson read to them by that splendid career, and notwithstanding all the warnings of the past, and the terrible seasons of chastisement they had come through, they still spring anew to that sin, the moment that the hand that kept them back from it is removed. The good judge is dead, and Israel fly to their idols, is the purport of the story. (See the character of the unteachable heart, and God’s dealings with it, on pp. 311–318; also 186, 189–192.) This is instructive.
(1.) It showed that their previous penitence wanted root. Impressions, however strong, made on the human heart will not last, unless they take root in the understanding, the affections, and the will.
(2.) The sin of worshipping other objects in place of God is a passion with the depraved human heart.
(3.) Inveterate sin is without shame. Therefore it loses self-respect.
(4.) It is blind, and regardless of consequences.
(5.) If not arrested, it leads to sudden destruction. (Proverbs 29:1.)
In this case, happily, the covenant stood between them and that.
2. The people’s ingratitude to both God and man.
(1.) It springs from want of consideration. How often does God complain, “My people do not consider?” “They are sottish children—a people of no understanding.” There is no weighing of claims, or taking serious facts into account.
(2.) It implies deadness of heart. The motives on God’s side towards all His creatures are so strong, that if there be any sensibility left in the heart at all, there must be some emotion awakened. That there should be none, implies the loss of the capacity for feeling.
(3.) It implies aggravated guilt. How offensive such a spectacle before a holy God. That such a worthless object should be embraced, a piece of dead matter, a thing made by its own worshipper, and an object surrounded with every possible vile association, that such an object should be preferred as a thing to be embraced and worshipped instead of the true and holy Jehovah, is indeed fitted to bring down some awful manifestation of the Divine anger.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Judges 8". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany