We all know the famous saying “seeing is believing”. The principle behind this is that only what you can see with your eyes is the truth. What is not visible is regarded as impossible. This has also made major inroads in the Christian faith and has in certain instances lead to a major brand in Christianity that relies on living by signs and wonders instead of by faith. It has also given sanction to the idea that we may test God, under the pretense of asking Him for a sign like Gideon did. This obviously turned Gideon into some hero, because he became a role model for this “theology of doubt” seeking signs.
This morning we meet the next Judge of Israel, Gideon. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read Gideon, with all the other Judges, are commended for their faith, a kind of faith that testifies to a “believing is seeing” – quite the opposite of what is at the root of the materialistic and even mystic view of “seeing is believing”.
We will investigate his faith today and see what Gideon experienced.
Faith questioning God
When we first meet him, he is not a man of whom we will say “this is a man of great faith”. For starters, he did not think that there was any hope for Israel in their dire situation.
The moment Deborah and Barak were not there to lead them, they fell back in their old habits and whored after the Baals of the nations. This again led to God using these very nations as a punishment – this time around the Midianites. They were a constant irritation to the people of God, plundering their crops and stealing their flock. This resulted in them living in caves while winnowing their harvest in unnatural places.
This is where the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate appearance of God in the Old Testament) finds Gideon (6:11), “beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.”
“The Lord is with you,” he told Gideon. But notice Gideon’s
If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us … But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian. (6:13)
He is a sceptic, who questioned God’s covenant relationship with His people. The backbone of the covenant is “I will be your God and you will be my people.” The mode of this has always been and will be God’s presence among them. Gideon question’s this.
He also questions God’s motives.
This is a concern, especially considering that prior to this God had sent a prophet to inform them exactly why they are in this situation. It was their sin, culminating in idolatry and mixed marriages.
He furthermore questions God’s
redeeming work. This is not visible to him from where he is standing, beating out wheat in the wrong place out of fear for the enemy.
His view: God has forsaken them. He
broke His covenant. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see faith in Gideon at this point. It is only when the heavenly visitor identifies himself as the Lord, that some sort of faith response becomes clear.
Faith seeking signs
His next response shows another issue with Gideon. He is not going to “surrender” easily. One would think that having heard the prophet, and having a physical encounter with the Lord himself, would be enough to juice up his faith to the highest level. Not so! Time and again Gideon would resort to seeking a sign.
In this encounter, he asked the Lord to stay there while he goes and prepares an offering. In his mind, this would all be true if, when he returns, his visitor is still there. Well, he was, and he accepted Gideon’s offering. This should have finally confirmed it for Gideon. There should be no problems further.
Well, unfortunately not. When Gideon realized everything is moving rapidly toward the battle, he resorted to his old ways of seeking signs. Twice he asked God to take care of the fleece as a confirmation. Twice God granted this request. We tend to think God enjoys this “seeking confirmation by the doubter” thing. We then make Gideon’s actions prescriptive in times of doubt and “seeking God’s will.” But God cannot be put to the test as if He is on display or on duty to confirm our doubts. Christ said that those who believe because they do not see are blessed. In fact, Christ himself did not condescend to a sign-seeking generation. He even went so far as to say that not even raising someone from the dead would have any effect, unless it is deeply rooted in the knowledge of the Scriptures.
So why did God then perform these two miracles? It was to confirm His identity as God over all pagan Gods, even Baal. People believed Baal was in control of not only storms and thunder, but also dew and fertility. By controlling the dew on the fleece, God declared to Gideon and all who would hear this story retold, that He is God and will not be mocked. He proclaimed that He will win the battle, no matter the odds. In short, He pronounced emphatically to Gideon and all who doubt that He is God!
But, one more time Gideon needed a sign, a confirmation. This is after all that he encountered: a.) God sent a prophet, b.) He revealed himself to Gideon, c.) He accepted his offering, d.) He spared his life when the people wanted to kill him for pulling down the altar to Baal, e.) He did the fleece-thing twice, and still! Now God said to him if you do not believe me, go into the enemy’s camp and listen! (7:9-15)
Verse 15 is especially important:
As soon as Gideon heard the telling of the dream and the interpretation, he worshipped. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise, for the Lord has given the host of Midian into your hand.
Well, we all know the outcome, how he defeated the armies of Midian. When the people saw what he did, they wanted to crown him king, but he refused:
I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you. (8:23)
Finally! Nope, he had to go for one more sign, one he made himself. An ephod from the gold he collected. This became a snare to Israel and led them back into idolatry.
In the end, Gideon and the people paid the price for a faith that was constantly seeking for signs.
Faith not being humble
Throughout his life, we furthermore find Gideon struggling with humility. He never could get rid of himself. We read this in many places. To start with, he hides behind the inferiority of his clan. It is clear his father was a Baal priest, and Gideon could allocate 10 servants to help him break down the altar!
Remember how God culled his army from 32000 to 300. Well, that is because God said a victory with 32000 will only feed Gideon’s proud heart. Better cut him down to size else he will himself take the honour! Well, guess what? Gideon did steal honour for himself. Remember his battle cry:
For the Lord and for Gideon (7:18)
And when they asked him to rule, he refused – that is in words at least. His deeds show a different story. He adopted the lifestyle of a king, taking several wives and a concubine. He had 70 sons from this, and he even called his one son “Abimelech”, which translates as “My father is king!” And then he had the audacity to make them an ephod which was to represent Yahweh, their covenant God.
It is clear the pride in his heart grew stronger and stronger with every obstacle over which God gave him victory. The outcome affected the nation.
A serious warning
In chapter 8:33 and following tell us the very sad story of Gideon’s legacy. They made Baal-Berith (“Baal of the covenant”) their God. They forgot Yahweh, their true covenant God, and exchanged Him for idols made of wood, stone and metal.
This is a result of giving in to the power of sin and allowing our hearts – which are by nature idol factories – to wander away and be fed by its own pride. Therefore, the warning of Scripture is clear. God’s people are to live by faith and not by sight. We are not to seek anything beyond that. Christ said He will not give any sign, but the sign of Jonah – which pointed to Him crucified. Paul wrote that the Greeks desired wisdom and the Jews signs, but God gave the cross. This is the greatest sign of God’s love, patience, kindness and righteousness and justice. This is the only sign we are to live by, as it is rooted in God’s Word. The cross of Christ and the Word of God confirms each other, and therefore we are to obey God’s word and cherish the cross of His Son. True faith grabs these two as its feeding ground and rejects anything else, no matter what the situation is!
Gideon’s faith did result in victory, accomplishing God’s purposes through him. I this, his faith was victorious. But his carelessness for his own soul and the souls of those who followed him, caused him to become prideful and conceited and to lead a free people back into slavery. In the end, his story makes us want to shout out “when will the true deliverer come?” Well, that is the point of it all – and God was busy working out His plan using flawed and messed up people. Sinful to the core, in need of a savior to really win them over and lead them into eternal life.