In Israel’s history, no group of heroes is more unlikely than the judges of the Old Testament. The chaotic nature of the time period combined with the unique (and sometimes uncivilized) individuals whom God chose to lead His people resulted in scenarios that were often complex and even bizarre.
Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in the lives of the two men we will consider this week. Gideon and Samson were both men with serious faults and would have been rejected by wise men from any critical duty of leadership. Yet the Lord chose them to sustain His people and to fulfill His redemptive purpose. Their weaknesses only serve to highlight God’s infinite power—which triumphed through them in spite of their imperfections.
Let’s begin by looking at God’s strength displayed in the life of a deliverer named Gideon.
The Leader Who Lacked Courage
The account of Gideon begins in Judges 6. From the outset, he is depicted as a man whose fear was greater than his faith. The same was true of his fellow countrymen. For seven years, they had lived in perpetual dread of the bordering Midianites and Amalekites, who repeatedly raided Israel’s land, destroying their crops and stealing their livestock. Weary of hiding in caves in the mountains, the Israelites finally cried out to the Lord for help.
That the Lord selected Gideon as the answer to deliver Israel is proof that His power cannot be limited even by the most unlikely human instrument. When we first meet Gideon, he is hiding from the Midianites—attempting to covertly thresh wheat in a winepress (Judges 6:11). The process of beating out grain and separating it from the chaff normally took place out in the open, on a hilltop, where the breeze would blow the chaff away. But fearful that enemy marauders might spot him, Gideon took cover in the quarried shelter of a winepress. The location was far from ideal for winnowing wheat, but at least his efforts would go undetected, or so he imagined.
As Gideon worked his humdrum task with fearful fervency, an astonishing event happened—the Angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him. The evidence in the Old Testament of such appearances indicates that the Angel appeared in a form like a man, and that is why there is no shock and panic as might occur if the appearance were of heavenly glory. Gideon did not fall into a traumatic sleep like those who actually saw the glory of God (such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, John, and Paul). Instead, he carried on a conversation.
No doubt what startled him was the reality that his hiding place had been discovered. But Gideon would have been even more surprised to hear the Angel speak to him and say, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” (Judges 6:12). From Gideon’s perspective, both parts of that greeting were questionable. “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” he asked in verse 13. “And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” Driven by doubt, Gideon went on to deny that he was a man of bravery: “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house” (v. 15). Clearly, faith and fortitude were qualities Gideon sorely lacked.
Yet in calling him a man of valor, the Angel of the Lord was not referring to what Gideon was, but what he would become by the strength that God provided. Thus, He said to Gideon, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man” (v. 16). When the Lord came upon him, this faithless coward would accomplish incredible feats of bravery in delivering Israel. Gideon was so skeptical that such a possibility could come from a doubting coward like him that he demanded a sign from God. The Lord graciously consented. When the faithless farmer offered bread and meat to his heavenly visitor, He miraculously consumed it with fire before disappearing from his sight (v. 21).
It is important to note that the Angel of the Lord is identified in Judges 6 as the Lord Himself (vv. 14, 16, 23, 25, 27). That is why He gladly accepted Gideon’s offering of worship (vv. 18–21)—something an ordinary angel would never do (cf. Revelation 22:8–9). When Gideon finally realized that it was the Lord Himself he had seen, he was certain he would die.
When Gideon saw that He was the angel of the Lord, he said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” The Lord said to him, “Peace to you; do not fear, you shall not die.” (Judges 6:22–23)
The weight of biblical evidence indicates that the Angel of the Lord was the pre-incarnate Christ, the second member of the Trinity, appearing in bodily form—as He did on a number of occasions throughout the Old Testament era (cf. Genesis 16:7–14; Exodus 3:2–5; Numbers 22:22–35; Joshua 5:13–15). The Angel’s appearances throughout Israel’s history, along with passages like Isaiah 9:6 and Daniel 7:13, provide strong Old Testament evidence for the deity of Jesus Christ.
That night, the Lord came to Gideon and instructed him to tear down an altar to Baal that was near his father’s house. The young man obeyed, though with great trepidation. According to Judges 6:27, “Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had spoken to him; and because he was too afraid of his father’s household and the men of the city to do it by day, he did it by night.” Again, courage was not a familiar virtue to Gideon. Nonetheless, he had shown a willingness to obey the Lord, and that was progress in his faith.
Testing the Lord
When he heard that the Midianite invaders had returned, Gideon summoned the men of Israel to fight. In a remarkable display of valorous volunteerism, some thirty-two thousand warriors responded. But even with such a sizeable force under his command, Gideon doubted that he was the right person to lead them into battle. Once again, his faith was faltering, so he demanded another sign that God would be with him.
Then Gideon said to God, “If You will deliver Israel through me, as You have spoken, behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I will know that You will deliver Israel through me, as You have spoken.” And it was so. When he arose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece, he drained the dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let Your anger burn against me that I may speak once more; please let me make a test once more with the fleece, let it now be dry only on the fleece, and let there be dew on all the ground.” God did so that night; for it was dry only on the fleece, and dew was on all the ground. (Judges 6:36-40)
Though the Lord graciously consented to his request (as He had to a similar one by Moses in Exodus 33:12ff), Gideon’s actions should not be viewed as a pattern for believers to follow. As Christians, we do not ascertain the validity of God’s Word by asking Him for miraculous confirmation. Instead, we live according to His will by believing Him and being obedient to His Word. The Lord had already told Gideon that He would be victorious over the Midianites. That revelation should have been sufficient. By asking the Lord not to be angry with him before his request, Gideon, driven by his doubt, showed that even he knew he had overstepped his bounds. He acknowledged his faith was weak, but that he was in danger of sinfully putting God to the test (cf. Deuteronomy 6:16).
The Lord could have punished Gideon for his lack of faith, but He didn’t. But a braver or more faithful man would not have fit the role God had prepared for Gideon. As we’ll see next time, his weaknesses formed the perfect canvas for the Lord to display His power.