We generally associate Gideon’s name with his military victories. But when we first meet the Old Testament hero in the book of Judges, he’s hiding out in the wilderness, attempting to eek out a life while avoiding the notice of Israel’s enemies. Even after the Angel of the Lord told him that he would deliver Israel from the Midianites, he was filled with cowardly doubts.
In his fear, Gideon doubted God’s words and His power. He foolishly tested the Lord, and mercifully, God still saw fit to use this faithless coward to display His power.
When his doubts had been removed and he was convinced that the Lord would give him victory, Gideon readied his army of thirty-two thousand men to face the Midianites, likely with a conventional battle strategy. But God had His own strategy for Israel’s army—one that could only be disastrous from a human perspective. As they were encamped across the valley from their enemies, the Lord came to Gideon with His shocking plan.
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’ Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.’” So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained. (Judges 7:2-3)
God had chosen timid Gideon to lead the attack so that His glorious power might be the only explanation for victory. Now He instructed the apprehensive leader to downsize the army! If Gideon had been nervous with an army of thirty-two thousand, imagine how he felt when twenty-two thousand of his troops left for home. Gideon would have been helped if he had remembered the words of Moses, who told the Israelites many years earlier, “When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horses and chariots and people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deuteronomy 20:1). By reducing the size of the army, God made it certain that this would not be a conventional victory by the men of Israel.
Though only ten thousand warriors were left, God wasn’t finished slimming down Israel’s forces. In Judges 7:4, He tells Gideon, “The people are still too many.” Following the Lord’s instructions, Gideon led the army to a nearby brook for a drink. “And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink’” (v. 5). Of the ten thousand remaining warriors, ninety-seven hundred of them knelt to drink. Only three hundred scooped water to their mouth, using their hands to lift and lap the water.
Gideon’s faint heart must have nearly stopped when God told him, “I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home” (v. 7). No reason for such a distinction is given, so the drinking action indicated nothing about their ability as soldiers. It was merely a way to divide the crowd. Their prowess as soldiers had no bearing on the victory.
From the standpoint of proven military tactics, reducing one’s army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred makes no sense. But the Lord was declaring an unmistakable point—not just for Gideon but for all of Israel and for us. They were about to see His power put on display; it was time for them to be courageous, not because they themselves were strong, but because the Lord fought on their behalf (cf. Joshua 23:10).
Still, Gideon’s fear was palpable (Judges 7:10). So, a third time, God gave him a sign to calm his nerves. It came in a strange way. God instructed Gideon to sneak down to the Midianite camp. He obeyed the frightening demand. When he arrived, he overheard two enemy soldiers conversing. The first reported an odd dream he had experienced the night before, in which a loaf of bread rolled into the Midianite camp and knocked down a tent. In response, the second soldier offered an interpretation, “This is nothing less than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand” (v. 14). After hearing the dream and the terror in his enemy’s voice, Gideon had his sign and returned to his troops convinced that the Lord would give them the victory.
The Army That Annihilated Itself
In the deep darkness of the night, Gideon’s three hundred men—having been divided into three companies of one hundred soldiers each—did as they were instructed and took trumpets and torches concealed in empty pitchers and positioned themselves above and around the Midianite camp. In a coordinated effort, Gideon’s army blew their trumpets, smashed their pitchers to the ground, held up their blazing torches in the night, and shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” With that cry, the silent stillness of the black night was shattered with blasting trumpets, yelling soldiers, and the sudden blaze of three hundred torches. The strategy was perhaps to make it appear that each of the three hundred represented a whole unit of soldiers.
For Israel’s startled enemies, terror followed shock. Dazed and disoriented, the half-asleep Midianites panicked. Thinking there must be Israelite soldiers everywhere in their camp, and in the depth of the darkness, the Midianites were unable to distinguish friend from enemy, and with their swords they slashed a path of escape through their own men. According to Judges 7:21–22, “All the army ran, crying out as they fled. When they blew 300 trumpets, the Lord set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army.” Thus, the confused Midianite army destroyed itself. Those who managed to escape fled, and Gideon’s three hundred gave chase. They also called on other Israelites to help in the pursuit (Judges 7:23).
The rest of Judges 7–8 describes the victorious pursuit of Gideon and his army, as they drove the Midianites out of Israel for good.
The Victory Belongs to the Lord
As a result of the conquest, the Israelites wanted to make him their king, but Gideon acknowledged that the Lord alone was the true King (Judges 8:23). He recognized that all the credit for Israel’s deliverance belonged to Almighty God.
Though Gideon did not always make wise choices (cf. Judges 8:24–31), the rest of his lifetime marked an era of peace for the Hebrew nation. In the words of Judges 8:28, “So Midian was subdued before the sons of Israel, and they did not lift up their heads anymore. And the land was undisturbed for forty years in the days of Gideon.”
Incredibly, the Lord used this faint-hearted grain farmer to deliver His people from their deadly enemies. When we were first introduced to Gideon, he was sneaking around like a coward, hiding in a winepress. He was the most unlikely of potential heroes. But God elevated him to win a decisive battle against impossible odds—not to exalt Gideon—but to demonstrate His mighty power to save His people. In response, Gideon rightly recognized that the Lord alone deserved all the glory. The young man’s dramatic transformation, from faithless to fearless, is such that he is included in the New Testament among the elite examples of the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32). His example of faith-filled dependence on the Lord serves as a perpetual reminder of the strength that God supplies to those who trust in Him.
Our abilities, talents, and prowess are never the deciding factors in fulfilling God’s plans. Gideon’s weakness proved that. Next time we’ll see how the Lord used Samson’s incredible strength to make the same point.