The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD: and the LORD delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years.Gideon
AT the close of the song of Deborah "the land had rest forty years." The sixth chapter begins with the usual black line:—"And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord." These comings and goings of evil in human history seem to be fated. Men never get so clear away from evil as never to come back again to it; at any moment the course of life may be reversed, and the altar, the vow, the song, and the prayer may be forgotten like vanished summers. This makes the reading of human history a weary toil. We have only to turn over a leaf, and the saints who have been singing are as active as ever in evil. It would be difficult to believe this if we did not know it to be true. This Bible-history is indeed our own history written before the time. Our life seems to be spent upon a short ladder, in going up, in coming down: in going up to pray, in coming down to sin, and drying the tears of penitence; and climbing again, and then coming down; miles short of heaven. The weariness is not in the literature—it is in the fact. We are many men: when we would do good, evil is present with us; when we would do evil, the angel looks at us and reproaches our purpose. The history of Israel is the history of the world. Israel was given over to the hand of the Midianites seven years. This was not, as in the former case, an oppression; it was an attack. In our last study we saw Israel oppressed; here we see a foreign invasion, crowding upon the land inhabited by Israel. Whether in this way or in that, God will not let the battle end until he has punished evil and destroyed it. He is continuing the same policy now. Seated in the heavens, he is watching the earth as if it were the only world he had,—blessing the good, punishing the evil, threatening everything that is of another nature than his own, and keeping perdition for those only who must inevitably be lost. In the olden times there were oppressions, invasions, assaults, and the like; today Providence seems to be operating by subtler methods, but always operating to the same end: to punish the evil, and bless the good. A very vivid picture is given of the state of Israel in chapter Judges 6:2. Israel was dwelling in "the dens which are in the mountains, and caves, and strong holds." The proud and princely Israel was burrowing in the torrent gullies, instead of building cities that should have lifted their towers and spires like ascending psalms to the approving heavens. Think of it well! It is the same today. Men who might have been in the thoroughfare are hidden away in some distressing obscurity. Men who ought to have been foremost are left so far behind they can hardly be seen,—dim spectres in the far-away distance. The Midianites were coming up like locusts. No sooner did the Israelites sow their seed than the Midianites had their eye upon it; and it was only by strategy, cunning almost surpassingly human, that Israel could save a handful of corn for itself. Israel was "impoverished." A very remarkable word is that. It means that they were like a door swinging on broken hinges. Israel, the redeemed people, Israel without whom there might have been no history, Israel had so sinned as to be at last like a door swinging on hinges that were broken: the door could not be shut, the door was no security, the door was a perpetual irony, yea, a daily reproach and taunt. There is a poverty that is the result of what we call misfortune; that is to be pitied and to be assisted: there is a poverty that is only the social and punitive side of sin; that is to be recognised as such—a black blot on the snow of God's holiness, a sad brand on the righteousness of things. Or the figure may be changed, for it is a double one. Israel was like a sear leaf, just hanging by one frail thread to the branch, all the juice gone, all the beautiful green dead for ever, all possibility of fruitfulness exhausted; and there hung great Israel, a leaf—sear, yellow, dead, just hanging to drop! We must realise this condition of things before we can understand the arduousness of the mission of Gideon. If we do not understand the situation we cannot understand Gideon's distress, hesitation, hopelessness. The times were out of joint. All things beautiful were dead. The whole time was given over to idolatry. There was but one man who kept to the true faith, and he seemed to worship in secret; he alone was not swallowed up in the great idolatrous passion; his father had gone religiously astray, but he himself still thought of old histories, and had in him flickering, but, oh, quite dyingly, some hope of returning faith.
Then came the inevitable "cry ":—"The children of Israel cried unto the Lord" (Judges 6:6). It was a mean prayer. Some cries must not be answered; they are unworthy screams or utterances of selfish desire. The Lord will not be too critical about these "cries," for who then could stand before him and hope for any thing from his hand? What prayer is there worth being heard, not to say worth being answered? Search it, probe it, and what is it but religious selfishness—a plea for self? But men must pray as best they can. We cannot expect perfect prayers from imperfect men. In the cry there may be something which God can hear to which he will make response. But prayers are not answered, because they are not prayers; they are self-excuses, self-pleadings, desires inspired by selfishness: so they are narrow, shortsighted, out of the rhythm of the music of the universe, notes that cannot be smoothed into the general utterance of the divine purpose; they may do the suppliant good by heightening his veneration or exciting within him some inexpressible desires, but as words they fall back again like birds whose wings have been broken.
Israel cried unto the Lord. What was the divine answer to that cry? It was a prophet. Jewish legend says it was Phinehas, son of Eleazar. The prayer was answered by a man:—"The Lord sent a prophet unto the children of Israel" (Judges 6:8). A "prophet" is a teacher, a man who sees the largest relations of things, one who lives above the cloud and can see what is going on underneath it; a seer, a man of penetrating vision, a man whose eyes are within, and from whom God has hidden nothing of wisdom, grace, purpose, and issue. The age must be prepared for its prophets. When the age is haughty, self-contented, self-idolatrous, prophets go for nothing; they are the object of sneering remark; they may be caricatured, they may be turned into food for merriment; but when the age becomes like a door swinging on broken hinges, or like a sear and yellow leaf when all hope has died out of it, then men ask if there be not a prophet, or one who can pray—a seer who can penetrate beyond appearances and discover germs of life or hints of hope? It was so now. The prophet came, and delivered a judicial speech:—
"Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you forth out of the house of bondage; and I delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all that oppressed you, and drave them out from before you, and gave you their land; and I said unto you, I am the Lord your God; fear not the gods of the Amorites [the Amorites were the highlanders of Palestine, and as they were the strongest of all the Canaanitish tribes they are often spoken of as representing or including the whole of them], in whose land ye dwell: but ye have not obeyed my voice" (Judges 6:8-10).
Here you find a reminder,—that is to say, a reference to history. Memory was awakened and turned upon the days that had gone, God works through recollection. Marvellous are the miracles which God works by the power of memory: memory goes back, and brings to mind things forgotten, uses them in the light of today, observes their action upon the circumstances which make up the immediate present; and oftentimes a man needs no hotter hell than an awakened and stimulated memory. The recollection was followed by a reproof:—"But ye have not obeyed my voice," saying in effect: I have not changed; I was continuing the line; my purpose was one of deliverance and success and honour for Israel, but ye failed in obedience: first you became reluctant, hesitant, then weary, then you complained of monotony, then you said the yoke galled your shoulders, then you fell clean away, then you built Asherah and worshipped Baal; this is the reason of all that has come upon you; blame yourselves: for men who fall away from the road of obedience fail of the heaven of blessedness.
All this is intelligible. We have been accustomed to these reminding and accusing voices ourselves, and we do not hear in them anything that startles our reason or taxes our faith. Now the prophet is succeeded by an angel. A most mysterious instance occurs, challenging our faith in its loftiest moods. Gideon was threshing wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites. He was in a little sheltered corner, not daring to use a flail, perhaps, lest the beat of it should attract the attention of some listening Midianite; Gideon was almost rubbing the wheat between his hands. He was in a little cave rather than in a winepress, which is hardly the literal translation. He was in a corner by himself, rubbing out the wheat which he had industriously sown, painfully watched, and honestly gathered. It was weary work for Gideon. He felt that he was a prisoner, almost stealing his own bread. This is not unknown to ourselves. Men sometimes have to hide their food from their own relations. Some men dare not even seem to be prosperous, because they know what havoc would be wrought by those who have been watching their honourable and successful labours. Men sometimes have to hide themselves from their own flesh, and to rub out their little handful of wheat behind some sheltering crag. Some men are bound to look poor, because they know they would be fleeced and robbed. Is that not strictly according to our own personal experience? This is the picture presented by the position and action of Gideon [hewer]: a hidden man, doing an honest work in the quietest possible way, only thankful if he can get his wheat turned into bread to satisfy his hunger. Watch Gideon, the one religious man of the place and time. If any one were to come from heaven now, he would come to Gideon. Like descends upon like. "And there came an angel of the Lord, and sat under an oak which was in Ophrah [in Western Manasseh], that pertaineth unto Joash the Abi-ezrite." For a time the angel was silent. How will he speak to a weary man? He will say to him: Poor laden one, this is sad work for Israel; poor weary Gideon, I am sorry for thee in my heart; Gideon, thou shouldst have been out in the open air swinging thy flail and separating the chaff from the wheat right cheerfully and hopefully—poor Gideon! Such sympathy would have overborne the man; it would have been the one drop that would have made the cup of his sorrow overflow. No, there must be sharp reaction; a note must be struck that will awaken the man wholly: he must not continue his dream-trouble, he must have his sleep driven away. What said the angel? "The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour." The speech seemed to be ironical. Gideon had about him the look as to weariness of a man who was exhausted. But he was a king, and he had a kingly presence, a face that only needed to be awakened to answer the angel's own in the likeness of kinship. There was no fairer man than Gideon in all the land; the make of him was a miracle of God. When he stretched himself right out to his full compass and looked his best self, one could understand how it was that he had "faithful among the faithless been," and had kept Jehovah's altar even amid the riot of the Baal-worshippers. Who shall say there is no kinship between angels and men? Who has wisdom enough to declare that there is no connection between the spiritual life or lives of the universe? It is not only a higher faith but a nobler reason which would say: All we, men, women, children, angels, spirits of the blessed, are one, warmed with one fire, radiant with one glory, expectant of one destiny. We cannot settle anything about this angel that is definite and final. What do we know that is at all of the nature of counterpart? We know something about unexpected meetings, strangers speaking to us, and yet so speaking that we know them,—speaking to us in our mother tongue, speaking to us words which we have wanted to hear but dare scarcely speak to ourselves; people making beginnings which have had happy endings;—that we know right well. We know something of unforeseen opportunities: the cloud has suddenly opened, and we have seen where we were. Clouds often do open quite suddenly. We have seen the mariner watching for the sun for days: the mariner is ready, his glass is in his hand; if there be but one little rift in that great cloud, he will avail himself of the opportunity to know where the sun is that he may know where his ship is. A rift has come, a sudden chance; it was but a moment, a glimpse, but in that moment there was communication between earth and heaven. So far we are upon familiar ground. We know something of unaccountable impressions also; and sometimes we utter prayers that angels might have inspired, for the prayers have surprised ourselves and made sudden Sabbath in the midst of the tumultuous week. If then we know something of unexpected meetings, unforeseen opportunities, and unaccountable impressions, we seem to be not far from the angel vision, the angel touch.
When Gideon heard the angel's message, he said, in a tone we cannot reproduce, a tone made credulous by incredulity, yet with some resonance of strength in its very halting and shaking,—a tone representing a strange struggle between hopelessness and faith, experience and possibility,—"Oh, sir"—for the term Gideon used in the first instance was but a term of courtesy and not a title of religious veneration—"Oh, sir, if the Lord be with us"—but the angel did not say so; the angel said "thee." Who can listen critically? Who can distinguish between person and number in the grammar of an angel?̶
"Oh, sir, if the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? [see Deuteronomy 21:17] and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites" (Judges 6:13).
It was a right answer so far. It was better that Gideon should know the exact circumstances. "To know ourselves diseased is half the cure." Gideon must not have any false hopes. He must not be taking up any broken splinters of wood and saying: These splinters will be swords which we shall thrust through the bows of the enemy. It is well that he is driven into obscurity, that he is made to do his work with the utmost quietness, that he is compelled to act almost as a thief on the threshold of his own house. To be down so far is to be in that darkness which oft precedes the dawn.
What did the angel do? The angel did two things. (1) He "looked." Who can interpret that word? Some biblical words must remain without interpretation. Sometimes in translating books from foreign languages into our own we are obliged to quote certain words and let them remain untranslated; we hover over them, point to them, give clumsy paraphrases of their possible meaning, but think it better after all to set down the word itself, for it has no equivalent in our own language. It must be so with this word "look." That look begat attention, inspired confidence, elevated thought, stimulated veneration, and looked Gideon into a new man. There are looks which do so. There is one look which is yet to do this in all the fulness of its meaning: the day is to come when we shall be like Christ, for we shall see him as he is. These are spiritual looks that we read of in the Old Testament, and that we have experience of in the current of our own lives. (2) The angel, however, not only looked but "said"—changed his tone, used human speech, addressed the man in his mother tongue. He said, "Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?" (Judges 6:14). But Gideon was astounded, and said in effect: Impossible—
"Oh, my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family [my thousand] is poor [the meanest] in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house" (Judges 6:15).
This is quite in the line of biblical history. Sarah "laughed" when the angel said that she should be the mother of one who should be supreme in history; Moses was shocked when he was told that he, a wandering, stammering shepherd, should face the Pharaohs of Egypt and demand justice to Israel; Paul was amazed that he should be chosen for great missions of deliverance. Speaking of Gideon, the quaint commentator Trapp says: "He was well-descended, but had mean thoughts of himself. True worth is modest. Moses had distributed the people into thousands as Alfred did the English into shires, hundreds, and tenths, or tithings, whereof the ancientest were called the tithing men." Such was Gideon's view of himself and his chiliad, or thousand. But there is the accusing and stimulating question: "Have not I sent thee?" accusing men of unfaith in a tone that stimulates them to seize their grandest opportunities. Are there not new births? Are there not vivid realisations? Are there not new selves? Behold, the angel must confirm his own message and vindicate his own revelation.
What is the application of all this to ourselves in addition to what has already been said? Are we not often hopeless? We say Jesus Christ is in a minority. Put down the great leaders of the world's religions, and Jesus Christ must statistically take his place near the bottom of the list. That is the arithmetical condition of affairs today. Even if every man in the church be a sound man, yet, reckoning up the sum-total, the figures often sink into insignificance. But are there not these two great lessons lying upon the very face of the history, namely, that we grow in social power as we grow in spiritual consciousness? Just as Gideon saw the angel and was conscious of a divine presence did he grow in social power. He was warmed into a larger self. It is when we see God most clearly that all difficulties vanish from our sight. See God, and you need behold no other sight to make the soul majestic and clothe the life with social beneficence. Fear God, and have no other fear. Be sure that the heavens are with you, then be confident that the harvests of the earth will he gathered even to the last grain of wheat, and the enemy shall not prevail in any degree. Then there is a second lesson lying upon the same line, namely, that we need not be socially great to be spiritually useful. Gideon said, "Behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house." "Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;" and anything but blessed are they who say, "We are rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,"—knowing not that they are poor, and blind, and miserable, and naked. It is like God to choose the poorest tribe and the poorest man in the tribe. When did God change that plan? When did he vary that mysterious policy? Is it not that no flesh may glory in his presence? Not many wise, great, mighty, noble are called, but God has chosen the weak things to trouble the strong,—yea, things which are not—things which seem to have no existence—to bring to nought things that are: ghostly ministries operating upon material fortresses, spiritual agencies crumbling down temples in the night-time, mysterious influences rending the mighty and bringing down that which is high.
Palestine, which is only about the size of Wales, and was still largely held by the former inhabitants, was subdivided by the Hebrews into many tribal governments, as England in the Saxon period was broken up into Essex, Wessex, Mercia, Kent, Sussex, and several other kingdoms; and was, hence, in constant danger of inroad and subjugation. To the nomadic tribes of the desert, which stretched to the borders of the land on the east and south, the valleys of Gilead and Bashan, and the fertile plains of Central Canaan, were an irresistible temptation, stretching out as they did like paradises of green, before eyes wearied with the yellow sand or dry barrenness of the wilderness. Israel itself, when only so many wandering tribes, had forced a way into these oases, and had held them, and there seemed no reason why other races should not, like them, exchange the desert for a home so fair, at least during the summer and harvest of each year, by overpowering Israel in turn.
The forty years' rest after Deborah's triumph was rudely broken by inroads excited in this hope. A great confederation of the Arab tribes, like that which, at an earlier day, had given the Shepherd Kings to Egypt, poured into Palestine. Midianites, Amalekites, and all "the children of the east," far and near, in countless numbers, with immense trains of camels, and of cattle, and flocks, streamed up the steep wadys from the fords of Jordan, and swept all resistance before them, from Esdraelon, on the north, to Gaza, on the extreme south. No sooner had the fields been sown each year, than these wild hordes reappeared, covering the hill pastures and the fertile valleys, in turn, with their tents; driving off every sheep, or goat, or ox, or ass, they could find, and seizing all hoards of grain they could discover, saved from the few fields that had escaped destruction by their endless flocks and herds. No visitation could be more terrible, for there was neither food nor live stock left in the land. Fire and sword spread terror on every side; desperate resistance by isolated bands of Hebrews only led to the massacre of these brave defenders of their homes, and at last safety and even existence seemed possible only by the population taking refuge in the numerous caves of the hills, and in strongholds on hill tops.
Almighty God, come to us as thou wilt—a great fire, or a great wind, or a still small voice. We shall know thee when thou comest, for we are akin to thee; thou didst make us and put thy name upon us. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; we are a continual surprise unto ourselves: sometimes we are self-afraid; sometimes we are tempted to be as gods. Now we know ourselves to be but men, and we sigh about our frailty, and say we are as a withering leaf, as a speck of dust blown about by the wind, a vapour that cometh for a little time and then vanisheth away; then in some other mood, created by thyself, we lay our hands upon all heaven and claim it as an inheritance in Christ Jesus, saying, This is the meaning of his blood, this is the true interpretation of his Cross,—glory, honour, immortality; service without weariness, worship accompanied by growing knowledge, trust in God untroubled by a doubt. Whether we are in this mood, or that, low down or high up, moaning about our littleness or rejoicing in our spiritual sonship, take not thy Holy Spirit from us: Holy Spirit, dwell with us! As for these varying tempers and conditions of ours, are we not still prisoners of time, bondmen of the flesh? Are we not oppressed by circumstances we cannot control? But of all these we shall presently be rid, and then we shall claim thy great creation for the development of our powers, for the continuance and consummation of our worship. For all high religious feeling we bless thee; for all sweet Christian hope we thank thee: whilst the angel of hope shines within us and sings its sweet song of heaven, we know nothing of death or of restraint or of littleness; we are already in the celestial world mingling companionlike with the angels. Read thy book to us thyself, with thine own voice, in thine own tone, and the tone shall be explanation: we shall know what thou meanest when we hear thine own voice. Above all things give to us the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and the understanding heart, when we come into the sanctuary of revelation, lest we exalt ourselves and say our own right-hand hath gotten us what spiritual prey we have: rather would we say, This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes,—is not his love a continual wonder? Is not his grace a perpetual revelation? Hold us, Mighty One, today and to-morrow, and on the third day perfect us. Amen.
WHEN the angel "looked" at Gideon the good man's heart was troubled, and yet his hope was revived. His faith went so far that he would submit to receive some test and proof that the angel was in very deed the messenger of God. It is something to have got so far along the road of the better land; anything in this direction is better than deafness, blindness, and utter indifference. Gideon said, "If now I have found grace in thy sight, then show me a sign that thou talkest with me" (Judges 6:17). According to the laws of Oriental hospitality, Gideon withdrew to prepare refreshment for his wondrous visitor:—"Depart not hence, I pray thee, until I come unto thee, and bring forth my present, and set it before thee." And the angel said, "I will tarry until thou come again." "Gideon went in, and made ready a kid, and unleavened cakes of an ephah of flour:"—unleavened bread being more easily-prepared than any other—"the flesh he put in a basket, and he put the broth in a pot, and brought it out unto him under the oak, and presented it." The angel said, "Take the flesh and the unleavened cakes, and lay them upon this rock, and pour out the broth." And Gideon did so.
"Then the angel of the Lord put forth the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and there rose up fire out of the rock, and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the Lord departed out of his sight" (Judges 6:21).
Now there came a practical test to be applied to Gideon. Sooner or later that test comes to every man. If we put God to the test, what if God should in his turn put us also upon our trial? The test to which Gideon was about to be put was a practical one. As the foreign invasion of Midian was traceable to Israel's evil-doing, so the beginning of the divine deliverance must be moral, spiritual, and religious. That same night the Lord said to Gideon: Take thy father's young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, attach it to the altar of Baal by rope or iron, and drag it down. That was a negative beginning. We must get down the old altar before we put up the new one. "And"—when thou hast done this—
"build an altar unto the Lord thy God upon the top of this rock, in the ordered place [build an altar with the wood laid in order]; and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the grove which thou shalt cut down" (Judges 6:26).
Gideon made one reservation. We do not wonder that he should have done so. He said, in effect: I cannot do this in the daytime; I will do it by night.—Who can blame him? Who will call him coward? It was a natural device. Men cannot be courageous all at once. Some men need to be trained and nursed into courage; be gentle with them, patient and hopeful,—who can spring into lionhood all in one sudden moment? "Gideon took ten men of his own," rather than "ten men of his servants," and pulled down Baal's altar by night. When night gives up her history, it may be found that many a man has attempted to begin a better life under the cover of darkness. We should not taunt men for want of boldness in spiritual things; sometimes they are bolder than we have imagined them to be: they may even have attempted to pray aloud when no one was present. That is a trial of a man's spiritual sincerity. It is not every man who can listen to his own voice in prayer and continue the supplication with any composure. A man's first audible prayer might smite himself down as by a great thunder-stroke: the voice seems so loud, the exercise so audacious; it is as if the universe had halted to hear the new appeal. Who shall say that men who are dumb in church have not tried in darkness and in loneliness to sing some little hymn of praise when they were quite unheard? Who knows what papers have been written, what plans of battle have been drawn up, at night-time, wherein men said they would certainly begin at this point, or at that point, to renounce a companionship, to change a custom, to release themselves from the tyranny of a habit: next time they would say No to the invitation which sought to seduce them to evil-doing. Who is not courageous when he is alone? Who is not most eloquent when there is none to hear him? We must not, therefore, fall foul upon the memory of Gideon and charge him with want of courage.
But the morning came. What the city then saw! The cathedral, so to say, was pulled down! When the men of the city arose early in the morning they missed the altar and the Asherah, "and they said to one another, Who hath done this thing?" And inquiry resulted in the information that Gideon the son of Joash had done it.
"Then the men of the city said unto Joash, Bring out thy son, that he may die: because he hath cast down the altar of Baal, and because he hath cut down the grove that was by it" (Judges 6:30).
Joash was not a born Baal-worshipper; the foreign religion sat uneasily upon him. He had inwardly no great respect for Baal; outwardly he was addicted to his worship, but really he had serious misgivings about Baal's godhead. What if all idolators be afflicted with the same scepticism? Scepticism does not grow in the Church with relation to the true God alone; unbelievers in the true religion have scepticism often with regard to their own: they cannot tell what to make of their dumb gods; they have great philosophies about them, but no direct consequence comes of it all; so when an assault is made upon them the resistance is but reluctant or careless. Joash was a wise man; he said: Men of the city, hear me: my son has torn down the altar of Baal; if Baal be a god in very deed let him avenge the wrong himself; do not you interfere as to Baal's sovereignty and godhead: in so far as Baal is a true god he will see to it that the man who insulted his altar shall be punished for his sacrilege and audacity. The men thought this was a good answer, and they accepted it. This is the challenge of the God of the Bible. God is always challenging the false gods to come forward and show what they can do. God mocks them, taunts them, tells them they are nothing,—says they are things made out of iron and stone and wood, and not a single thought is in their carved heads. This is the challenge of Elijah; said he, "The God that answereth by fire, let him be God," whatever his name be; this is not a test of names, forms, ceremonies, dogmas: if Baal be God, let us all worship him, and if the Lord be God, let us bow down in adoration before him:—"the God that answereth by fire, let him be God." The position taken up by Joash is the position we should all take up with regard to religious things. Let God defend himself. The Christian religion is never so humiliated as when men attempt to defend it. God needeth not to be ministered unto by men's hands; nor does he require the patronage of trained intellect and swift and eager mind. God is continually vindicating himself in his providence. God's appeal is: Look at the world; look at it in great breadths of time; not in a handful of days, or in a nameable measure of months, but look at it in the light of centuries; give yourselves field of vision enough; look at the distribution of men, and the distribution of all natural products; consider the occasion well: see what boundaries are set, see what issues are inevitable, observe how ambition is cut in two at a certain point, and must begin again to raise its shattered head; watch all the ebb and flow of civilisation; observe keenly as well as widely; and if providence be not its own vindication, it is useless for any man, however swift of thought or copious in expression, to attempt to vindicate what the facts themselves do not support. Christian teaching will be strong in proportion as it takes this ground. We are not engaged in matters that can be settled by words. We look abroad and see a law operating—a law of restraint, a law of culture, a law of rewards and punishments; we try to check it, modify it, avert it, but it comes on with quiet irresistibleness—an infinite force: who can ascend beyond a certain height? or who can descend without being suffocated? Who can stretch himself out so as to touch the horizon? and who has not chafed as Job chafed when he said, "Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?" If a man would take this wide vision, and bring into focus all these infinite relations, let him look carefully at his own life; let him, as it were, write his own story in his own language, and see how the chapters fall into happy sequence. See what training the man has had, what narrow escapes, what afflictions, what deliverances,—how disappointments have been turned into the roots of prosperity, and how the grim discouraging negative has been the beginning of boldest and most successful endeavour; and when the reviewer has concluded his retrospect, let him say if he can, "All this was of chance, and luck, and incalculable fortune."
Gideon, however, was punished by the people in some degree. The people must interfere a little, even in the case of avenging insults offered to Baal. So they called Gideon by a new name,—they called him "Jerubbaal." The least one can do is to give a reformer a nickname. If we may not smite him, we may at least throw some appellation at him which we hope the enemy will take up and use as a sting or a thong. So Gideon was called Jerubbaal—literally, "Baal's antagonist": let Baal strive, let Baal take up his own cause; Gideon is the man who has defied the gods. That was not a severe punishment for the beginning of a revolution. The name itself was taken up afterwards and sanctified. There is nothing the enemy can do that God cannot turn into happy issues. Now came the open conflict:—
"Then all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the children of the east were gathered together, and went over, and pitched in the valley of Jezreel" (Judges 6:33).
They were there first. They said, They will be well off who are soonest in the field. What had Gideon to present in reply to this tremendous muster? The story reads well at this point: "But the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon," and he was a thousand men in himself. Inspired, he knew no fear; the tabernacle of the living God, he trembled not before the wind and the tempest. We need inspired men, mad men, enthusiasts, men who know not whether they are fasting or feasting, men who use the world as not abusing it, who hold every thing lightly but their trust from the living God. Gideon "blew a trumpet; and Abi-ezer"—his little flock—"was gathered after him. And he sent messengers throughout all Manasseh"—the people of the tribe—"who also was gathered after him: and he sent messengers unto Asher"—who once proved faithless—"and unto Zebulun, and unto Naphtali"—who had won immortal fame in the battle last fought by Israel—"and they came up to meet them" (Judges 6:34-35). Spiritual endowment is power. It is of no consequence how many swords the Church has if it has not the living God: "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword." Christ's kingdom is not of this world: it is a kingdom of thought, feeling, love, sacrifice; be true to that spirit, and none can stand before you.
Now Gideon became afraid again, and must therefore be encouraged by another sign from heaven. We must not blame him. He is not the less earnest that he wants to be assured that he is right. Gideon invented a little test for God:—
"Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said" (Judges 6:37).
Did God reply? God accommodated himself to human weakness as he has always done. Gideon arose early in the morning, "and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water" (Judges 6:38). ["Wool, as a good radiator of heat, would, under ordinary conditions, receive a plentiful deposit of dew, but so would the surrounding grass and soil. The second miracle was still more remarkable, inferior radiators receiving dew, when a better radiator, wool, remained dry."] Gideon was half persuaded: Now, said he, if the reverse process can be completed, I shall be strong in faith, giving glory to God:—
"Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece and upon all the ground let there be dew. And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground" (Judges 6:39-40).
["The double sign in connection with the fleece, which Gideon asked of God, is an illustration of a tendency in him to ask for signs: and nothing could be more ingenious, nothing more satisfactory, than the alternate wetting by dew of the fleece and of the whole ground. Possibly he was led to use such boldness in repeated pleadings with God, by the example of Abraham's repeated requests when interceding for Sodom (Genesis 18:23-33). And he may have asked for the dew first to concentrate on the fleece, then to spread out over the ground, as he saw how the grace bestowed first upon himself, was spreading out over Israel."
We may not set these fancy tests. They were proper enough at the time when Gideon applied them. The day was not then so far advanced; it was quite early morning, grey twilight, and men did not see clearly, so they asked for much assistance to their vision; and God graciously answered them. Even in apostolic days the freak of the lottery was tried, and we hear but little of the happy consequences which flowed from the adventure. We have nothing to do with putting tests for God now. Why? It would seem a natural and beautiful thing to say, as Gideon said, If the fleece be wet, or if all the earth be wet, and the fleece be dry, then God is with me, and the right way is open before mine eyes. Why may we not submit God to these tests? because the day is far advanced. This is the age of the Spirit, the age of true spiritual or religious faith. We have now to be guided by those inward and spiritual convictions which often have no words for their adequate and precise expression. We are to be students of providence. Providence itself is a succession of trials, tests, proofs. We are to see how things go, to watch their origin, sequence, consummation. We are to get rid of the superstition that life is a series of isolated incidents. Instead of being right in this particular case, or that, we ourselves are to be right, and all these things shall be regulated for us. The man who is anxious to know merely detailed right has not entered into the Spirit of Christ. He is a man who would keep a book regarding himself, and separate or distribute his life into independent lines and items. That is the Baal we must cast down,—the Baal of being right in instances, in mere details, and writing a little maxim-bible of our own. What, then, is the great aim of Providence today? To make right men, to create new and clean hearts and spirits, to make the soul right. Is that represented to us in any formal, quotable words? Surely:—"Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." Expand that thought, and what happens but this great philosophy of life, namely: Be right in your soul, be right in your purpose, have a single eye, do not be playing a double game; "do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God; "and as for the details of this opening life, they will fall into great laws of divine Providence, and will be ministers of grace to the trusting soul. What an insidious sophism lurks in this thinking, namely, that if we could have lotteries by which to test individual actions we could not go wrong. So long as you are meddling with individual actions, and trying to be guided by a kind of travelling time-bill, you cannot be right. Here is the distinctive glory of Christ's religion. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." The man does not say, What shall I eat; what shall I drink; wherewithal shall I be clothed; what shall I do to-morrow; and on the second day how shall I be occupied; and in what spirit shall I encounter such and such a possible occasion? That is to live a little life,—to split up, and separate, and individualise, and to act cleverly, not religiously. Life is not to be a system of scheming, managing, arranging, balancing, outwitting those who are half-blind, outrunning those who are cripples or unable to run; life is a religion, a consecration, a spiritual sacrifice, a continual living in the sight and fear and love of God; that being granted, all the rest comes in musical sequence, everything else conies and goes by a rhythm divine in its swing and throb. Foolish are the men who want to be right in particular instances, who desire above all things not to be outwitted on set occasions. There was a time in human history when such desires were natural and wholly seasonable, but that time is not now; for Christ is amongst us, and says to us: Children, be the children of your Father in heaven; be ye holy, as your Father in heaven is holy; be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect; trust your Father, little flock; be not disheartened; live in your Father's good pleasure: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all details will settle themselves. Why, who would kindle a little fire in his own field to dissolve the snow, and say he will have at least a little garden there? Is the great snow to be broken up into patches in that way, and are we to have little summers and little forces of nature, and little clever attempts to grow something under the most discouraging circumstances? Do not interfere with God's law in that way. God will send a south wind and a warm sun, and the snow will flee away. There must be a great astronomic movement—a high, mighty far-reaching movement, a change of atmosphere: and that will drive back the winter, and in due time "throw a primrose on the bank in pledge of victory." So must it be with the winter-bound heart of man. It is not by lighting little fires here and there so as to warm great feeling, or create a momentary benevolence, or rise into a temporary ecstasy; the Spirit of the living God must descend upon the whole man, must take possession of the heart; and, reigning there, ruling there, working out the mystery of inspiration there, all the life shall bud and blossom, and be gracious and hospitable as summer. This is the better plan; this is the grander philosophy of life. We do not pronounce judgment upon Gideon in any adverse terms; he did what he could. God smiled upon his infantile endeavours; the great day of spiritual inspiration had not then fully come. Gideon's purpose was to know whether God was with him. The purpose is eternal—the method of discovery was temporary. Let us also know whether God is with us, not in this particular case, or in that particular case, but whether God is with us in very deed within, ruling the mind, and heart, and will, and judgment of the whole soul; and then if we go downhill, it will be downhill on the highlands: even the valleys are lifted up in these great heights; and if we do stumble, we shall rise again—yea, though we fall seven times, the eighth endeavour shall bring us home. He who lives upon any other principle lives a sharper's life,—often very clever, often very skilful, a good deal may be said in defence of it as to particular instances and individual successes, but he is a charlatan, an empiric, an adventurer; he is setting traps for God, and fancy devices wherein to entangle the Eternal. The great life—the grand, true, simple life—is to be in Christ, in God, as to thought, feeling, purpose: then let the days bring with them what they may, all their bringing will be overruled and sanctified, and even our very faults shall help us in our higher education.
"Cast down the altar of Baal" (Judges 6:30).—The word ba'al, as it signifies lord, master, is a generic term for god in many of the Syro-Arabian languages. As the idolatrous nations of that race had several gods, this word, by means of some accessory distinction, became applicable as a name to many different deities. Baal is appropriated to the chief male divinity of the Phoenicians, the principal seat of whose worship was at Tyre. The idolatrous Israelites adopted the worship of this god (almost always in conjunction with that of Ashtoreth) in the period of the Judges (Judges 2:13); they continued it in the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, kings of Judah (2Chronicles 28:2; 2Kings 21:3); and among the kings of Israel, especially in the reign of Ahab, who, partly through the influence of his wife, the daughter of the Sidonian king Ethbaal, appears to have made a systematic attempt to suppress the worship of God altogether, and to substitute that of Baal in its stead (1Kings 16:31); and in that of Hoshea (2Kings 17:16), although Jehu and Jehoida once severally destroyed the temples and priesthood of the idol (2Kings 10:18, sq.; 2Kings 11:18).
Almighty God, thou hast made the sanctuary a place of explanation: within thy house we understand all that is needful for us to know. Outside of it we cannot tell what things really are; we are in the midst of tumult and strife and anger; wrath and malice and bitterness exclude thy presence, but when we come into the house of God we see in the true light, we know somewhat of thy meaning, we are privileged to behold the outworking of thy purposes, and as we look we wonder, and as we wonder we pray, and our prayer speedily becomes a song of praise, because we see that the Lord reigneth and that the end of things is in his hands. Enable us often to come to the sanctuary. Blessed be thy grace for establishing it, so that now we may say, the tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth; God's house is in the midst of our dwellings. When we come into the sanctuary may we find the spirit of the house there,—the spirit of reverence and love, the spirit that loves the truth and follows after it and will eventually establish it; and being in the spirit in thy house, may thy book appear to us in all its breadth and lustre: wide as the great heaven, brighter than the sun when he shines in his strength; and may our hearts be comforted by the messages which they most need; and if first we must be humbled and chastened, stripped and impoverished, that we may know our right condition, thou wilt not end the process there, but having shown us our blindness and nakedness and wretchedness thou wilt give us fine gold, and ointment wherewith to anoint ourselves, and truth upon truth, until the soul is filled with the riches of Christ. So let it be now and evermore. May the sanctuary be a place of elevation whence we can see afar, and a place of revelation where we can see sights let down from heaven and hear voices meant for our instruction and comfort. To the sanctuary we bring our sin. Here we leave it, because the Cross is here; we may not—need not—take it back with us; for the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin. Here let our sin be crucified; here let our sin be pardoned.
This prayer we pray at the Cross; and we tarry at the Cross until the answer come. Amen.
THERE are critical words in every life, and critical moments. Everything seems to happen all at once,—a curious sense of suddenness affecting the whole life. The word "then," with which the first verse of the seventh chapter opens, marks a critical point of time. How easily the word is written; and how easily said; but all Gideon's life seemed crowded into that ardent moment. So it is with our own lives. We crush the whole life into one day. Or we seem to see for what our whole life has been preparing by the light which shines upon one special moment. The time of battle had come; but the time of battle came in the case of Jerubbaal, as we have seen, after long and singular preparation. All that is happening should be regarded as of the nature of preparation. We should ask ourselves now and again, even amid the monotony of life, What is the meaning of this rest? What is the point of this delay? God always has a purpose, and we ought to find it. Why all this schooling, this long and weary study, this knocking night and day at Wisdom's door? These intellectual inquiries touch the very region of prayer. What is the meaning of all these providences? In all these undulating lines of life read the philosophy and purpose of heaven regarding human service and destiny. Why these sharp trials, these rains of sorrow, these rivers of grief? Why these bereavements, losses, deprivations, disappointments, surprises? Has the tale no end? Is there no point of fire, no final climax? Is it all tumult, change, gain, loss, pleasure, pain,—on and on, and the last pain the greatest,—the pain of saying farewell before dropping into eternal silence? This cannot be. The question, then, should come to every man when he is seeing visions, hearing voices he never heard before, receiving unexpected and startling visits, What is the meaning of it all? This means action: presently the story will open upon the battle chapter. Surely some of us have had preparation enough. Long since we ought to have been in the thick of the fight, Why all this book-reading? Is there room in the crowded memory for one more volume? Surely we may say to some students, Why continue the bent head, the midnight lamp, the vigil out of season? What is the meaning of all this? The battle waits, or the battle might now begin: the world might turn round and ask, Are you not ready now to speak some gospel word, or at least look some look of hope, lifting upon our weariness eyes that might be as revelations and encouragements. It is weary work to watch how long some men are in putting on their armour. It tires the soul to see how long some men are in whetting the sickle, whilst the white harvest almost withers because of their unaccountable, if not criminal, delay. The critical morning dawned upon the life of Gideon. He took up his new name, having no objection to it. When his fellow-citizens called him Jerubbaal, he said, in effect: So be it: that name expresses my relation to the false god exactly,—namely: "Let Baal strive;" or "Let me be Baal's antagonist:" I yoke a bullock to the god, and drag him down; now let my father's advice be accepted, and let Baal defend his own case. It is wonderful to notice how many of these Old Testament people take their new name with fine grace, as if with deep sense of the fitness of the larger appellation. We, too, are called upon to pass into new names, or new categories: have we done so? Have we been called Christians? Or are we hiding the new faith under the old name, so that the people know not that a change has taken place in our title? "Beloved, now are we the sons of God." Yet some of us have hardly dared to claim and wear the name. If to some there belongs a name of controversy, battle, antagonism, take it up: it suits the times; the world wants warriors. Take the name which God gives you, or which is brought to bear upon you by the order of his providence. When does God give a less name than the old one? He adds a syllable, and thereby adds a destiny: he changes one letter, first or last, and therein changes the course of a lifetime. "Jerubbaal, who is Gideon," took his place at the head of his people, "rose up early." When did the great worker ever rise up late? Early-rising is a necessity of divine vocation. There need be no mechanical arrangement about it. The work is terrific, and the worker is straitened until it be accomplished. There is an impatience that is inspired. Gideon and his people "pitched beside the well of Harod,"—that is, beside the well of "trembling," beside the well of "fear." It is well to begin at that point. Many a man who has begun his work nervously has turned out at the end to be quite a giant. Take heart; you are indeed now at the well of Harod,—at the waters of fear and trembling,—but if you are there on God's business, have no vital fear; you may shake off all fear and pray in the church as a child might pray at home, and fight in the field as consciously called of God to do the work of battle. We must not pour contempt upon men who are nervous, timid, hesitant in their first speech, afraid to pray their first audible prayer. History ought to have taught us a good deal upon such matters. Men who have begun thus have ended in great renown. Everything depends upon our spirit, upon our reliance upon the living God, upon our knowing that the work is not ours but the Lord's.
This would seem to have been the course of the divine thought, for "the Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many." They are but thirty-two thousand in all; yet they are too many. But how can they be too many, for the Midianites are a hundred and thirty-five thousand strong? That, said God, is making a human calculation. We get wrong by applying human arithmetic to divine decrees; or we get wrong by trying to measure God's eternity by the tape of our time. He was an inspired man who invented the phrase "for ever and ever." That is the point at which time gives up the race, falls down dead, and lets eternity stand in its nameless mystery. But today we will play the arithmetician, and deal in figures and tables and returns audited and well avouched. When will we, can we, learn that all numbering is with the Lord, and that because the battle is his he will fight it as it pleases him? Israel would make a wrong use of numbers, as most men do. Israel would say, "Mine own hand hath saved me: I was thirty-two thousand strong on that memorable day, and that was force enough to slay the Midianitish power." God will stain the pride of all glory. God will not allow any flesh to glory in his presence. If we are gospel preachers, "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." Human ambition must be restrained.
The so-called law of cause and effect, which has victimised so many men in the spiritual universe, must be upset and contemned. When the Church comes into this temper we shall hear news of victory: God will surprise his trustful Church with tidings of great joy. Two-and-twenty thousand men returned unto their houses because they were fearful and afraid. Do not contemn this cowardice, for it is the very colour and temper of our own time. Many men are bold the day after the battle; many have nearly said the word of courage, the word of just reproof. Are not the greatest numbers most cowardly? In a sense this is true. If they could fight as a crowd they would be partially courageous: but real fight comes to man by man, assault and answer. So two-and-twenty thousand men said, We had better continue in oppression, in slavery, in loss, than challenge these unequal odds. But the Lord said, "The people are yet too many;" and the number was reduced to three hundred men by a very curious and interesting test, namely, the different methods in which water was taken. Are there no such tests now? We suppose that this test has passed away and settled in venerable history, to be occasionally exhumed and wondered about: the particular instance itself may no longer be literally repeated, but the principle that is in it is the principle which is operating in the very men who deny the accuracy of the literal incident itself. Men are chosen now by curious signs. We do not know how we are chosen to any particular work; but it may be found incidentally that some little unexpected circumstance, of which we took no note or heed, determined our being where we are. Men who want servants, lieutenants, allies, co-operative assistants, are looking round; the people upon whom they are looking may be unaware of the critical inspection, but it is proceeding nevertheless. Those who are looking on say, He walks lazily, his gait is lacking in energy; he will never do for my particular work. Or: See how he walks; what fire there is in him; every action is half a battle; he needs but to be put in the right circumstances, and he will turn out a satisfactory man; or: He talks too much; his speech is without pith or regard to the number of its words; he patters and gossips and is cursed with a detestable fluency: listen; he never ceases, he never pauses, he evidently loves to hear himself chatter,—he will never do. Or: He is an excellent listener; he does not commit himself: observe, he never plunges into anything that he cannot fully grasp and comprehend; he looks more than he speaks; not a word escapes that listener: when he does speak there is marrow in his speech; he is young, but he will get over that disadvantage; he shapes well already. This process is going on through all society. Men are noting one another; seeing whether they lie down upon the ground and devour the water, or whether, being men in wise haste and under self-control, they lap it, and pass on. The little local incident has changed, but the principle of curious and even eccentric election is operating in all life, and the men who deny the Bible live over again its most curious instances.
Gideon was one of those men who require continual encouragement. It was not enough to say to him once for all, "I will be with thee;" he did not doubt the divine presence: but see how Israel had been weakened, impoverished, crushed, these last seven years by the invasion of the Midianites; see how they dare not thresh their corn in the open field or accessible winepress, but had to beat it out in the concealment of the crags and rocks; observe how Israel had to listen and look to assure himself that no Midianite was looking on before he rubbed out his handful of corn and got it ready for the baking;—then say if a man could instantly become a great religious and courageous character; and then see how loving it was of God to deal with him according to his weakness, to encourage him, little by little to lead him on. Why, this is the Christly spirit: he will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax; he has the tongue of the learned, and can speak a word in season to him that is weary; he will not urge his omnipotence against our nothingness, but will accommodate his approach, and breathe upon us quietly, and send to our sinking spirits a still small voice. So Gideon needed to be encouraged again. The Lord said to him: I have made a man down in the Midianitish camp dream a curious dream; I will so operate upon him that he will begin to talk as it were in a half-sleep: go down and listen. Gideon looked afraid; the Lord noticed the blanched face and said: If thou fear to go down alone, go thou with Phurah thy servant; two may be better than one. This is an anticipation of the time when the Lord sent out his servants "by two and two." Gideon took heart when he was allowed to take a servant with him.
"Then went he down with Phurah his servant unto the outside of the armed [the same word is rendered harnessed in Exodus 13:18. The probable meaning is arrayed in divisions] men that were in the host. And the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the children of the east lay along in the valley like grasshoppers [locusts. Compare Numbers 22:4-5] for multitude; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the sea side for multitude" (Judges 7:11-12).
When Gideon came near a man told a dream to his neighbour; he said, "Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread"—such bread as Israel has been reduced to, the bread of poverty—"tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along." It is an extraordinary dream; what is the meaning of it? The other man had the faculty of interpretation; he said, "This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel." Once let the enemy have within him the fear that the opposing host will succeed, and the battle is won. Battles are lost and won in the soul. The Church has feared, and the Church has lost.
The battle opened. Israel, represented by three hundred men, did according to the instructions of Gideon:—"When I blow with a trumpet, I and all that are with me, then blow ye the trumpets also on every side of all the camp, and say, The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon,"—and that will correspond in instructive harmony with the dream which I have overheard; the name of Gideon has entered into the speech of the Midianites; associate that name with this great battle, and say, "The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon." So the battle opened. "And the three companies blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers, and held the lamps in their left hands, and the trumpets in their right hands to blow withal: and they cried, The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon;" and as the torches were shaken in the air, for they were torches rather than what we understand as lamps, and as the sound came from every quarter at once, Midian was afraid, and Midian was destroyed. Make the most of yourselves. You are but three hundred, but symbolically you are all heaven. This manner of assaulting the enemy is no dramatic manner, no pretence or affectation; this is a battle which is being fought on divine principles: therefore, if three hundred men seem to be three millions, they are such, multiplied by themselves and multiplied by infinity in their symbolical and representative capacity.
Gideon took princes that day, even "Oreb and Zeeb," the Raven and the Wolf. The heads of the raven and the wolf were brought to Gideon on the other side Jordan,—see him with the one in one hand and the other in the other. It was an old and barbarous plan to bring the head of the enemy to the hand of the conqueror. It is not a thing to be reproduced or countenanced by Christanised civilisation; but it was the ancient mode of warfare, and must be judged by the morality of the age. This is typical. "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? "He has trodden the winepress alone. He is mighty to save; he is mighty also to destroy. "His enemies will I clothe with shame: but upon himself shall his crown flourish." In this faith all Christians live and work, serve and suffer, and, blessed be God, the inspiration is in us also. Men call themselves by symbolical names, as Midian was called "the Raven," but God's hand is in the heavens, and the air shall be cleansed of his enemies:—"the Wolf," but God's eyes are in the forest and the jungle and the wilderness, and he will destroy the ravenous beast. Men have called themselves by ideal and typical names, as the "Gracchi"—the jackdaws. We respect them under the name of the Gracchi, because we do not know what it means, but when it is understood that the interpretation thereof is "jackdaws" we feel that we ourselves might encounter them in battle. The Aquilini—the eagles. So our great warriors have called themselves bull, and wolf, and lion. All these names have histories behind them; but we can never fight with names only: they must represent realities, spiritual inspirations, moral convictions, gospels we have died for, heavens we have seized with crucified hands; then the battle will go the right way. Enter the fight and always turn your eyes to the blood-stained banner on which is written, as with pen of lightning, The battle is not yours, but God's. Fighting under that banner and in its spirit, the fight can have but one end—grand, complete, eternal victory.
Almighty God, evermore be with us; evermore give us the bread of life: evermore keep us within the hollow of thy hand. We have learned to distrust ourselves. We have hewn out to ourselves cisterns, but have found them to be broken cisterns that could hold no water. We have thought to plant gardens and sow fields of our own, and behold thou hast withheld thy sun, and all our efforts have perished in darkness. So now, if thou wilt not disdain so mean an offering, we would, under the drawing of a power not our own turn to thy grace, and offer ourselves in sacrifice unto thee: do thou now accept the oblation and give us answers from heaven. We thought our life would never end, and behold we have come to know that it is but a breath in our nostrils. We said of our strength, It is enduring, and cannot fail; and behold, whilst the boast was upon our lips our juice was dried up and there was no sap in all the life. We all do fade as a leaf. We are but as the wind, blowing for a little time: or a vapour dying upon the breeze. We cannot tell what we are, for there is no language that can set forth our poverty, and feebleness, and littleness; yet, when we come to know thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour, and by living faith in him enter into the mystery of his being, then are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but our hope is that we shall be like our Saviour, for we shall see him as he is. So we are little, and great; worthless, yet all-worthy; children of time, yet sons of immortality. Help us to understand somewhat of this mystery, to accept it, to walk in its spirit, to pray mightily unto God that we may grow in all purity, nobleness, and holy power. Thy hand has been outstretched to us in all goodness; no good thing hast thou withheld from us. If we judge by thy rain we cannot tell the just from the unjust; if we judge by thy sunshine we know not the difference between the good and the evil: for thou art kind unto all, and thy tender mercies are over all thy works; the mercy of the Lord endureth for ever, and to his love there is no measure. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. We confess our sins, and mourn them with bitterest lamentation, and seek thy pardon at the cross. God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: it is the hope of the sinner; it is the way to heaven; it is the very glory of the divine love. Help us to handle our life with great sagacity, understanding the mystery of it as revealed in thy holy book; may we see its littleness, yet its infinite possibilities; may we judge between that which is for a moment and that which is for ever; as wise builders, may we build upon the rock and not upon the sand; may it be found at last that through apparent folly we have been practising the most solid wisdom, and though men have imagined that we had forgotten that which is temporal, yet by seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all the lower worlds and their meaner concerns have been put under our dominion. We give one another to thee. We would be wedded unto the Christ of God; we would serve him with all faithfulness, love, sincerity, and hopefulness: may he accept our offering. We bless thee for all good men, whose word is their bond, whose signature is never forsworn, who know what is righteous and do it at the cost of life itself. We thank thee for all patience, as shown in the house, in the business, in the church, in every sphere of life—divine patience, motherly, womanly, Godlike. We ask thee to be with us in all our special troubles and turn them into special joys: may our losses be the beginning of our gains, and through our failing health may we see the meaning of immortality. Guide the blind; save the helpless; give speech unto the silent; and be the friend of the friendless. Thus may we live in thy fear, in thy Spirit, in thy love, triumphing over life, time, space, death, already knowing that our citizenship is in heaven. Amen.
IN the eighth chapter we have quite a gallery of portraits. We may call these allusions to character, aspects, rather than full delineations. Unless we look very vigilantly we shall miss a good deal of the colour and meaning of this panorama, for the action is extremely rapid. You find a character in a line; a history in a sentence; the whole man almost in one trembling or urgent tone. Everything in this chapter is of the nature of condensation. More matter could not be put into this space. Hardly a word could be omitted without interfering with the solid integrity of the composition. He who built this chapter was a master-builder. What fire there is in it; what anger; yea, what zeal; what delay inspired by impatience! thus constituting an almost contradiction in terms. Here is a man too impatient to do what he wants to do at the moment, but he says, I will do it by-and-by; when the greater purpose is accomplished the smaller design shall be fulfilled. But we anticipate. Let us travel the road step by step.
Take Gideon's answer to Ephraim as showing that not only was Gideon a great soldier but a great man. That is the secret of all official greatness—namely, greatness of manhood. There can be no great officer in any sense except as expressive of a reserve of strength, a great manhood. There can be no great soldier, great statesman, great preacher, great business man, without there being behind all that is official and visible a great wealth of nature, a great fulness of life. The men of Ephraim did chide sharply with Gideon, saying, "Why hast thou served us thus, that thou calledst us not, when thou wentest to fight with the Midianites? "We shall see presently that Ephraim was both a bully and a coward. He is proud of having descended from Joseph, and proud of being connected with the illustrious Joshua; but in himself there was more foam than ocean, there was more splutter than divine energy. Ephraim was always finding that he had been left out in the cold. In a page or two we shall see that he met with the man who had the right answer to that foolish self-idolatry. Gideon will reply softly and gently, but Ephraim shall not always have it thus; he will ask this very question again of another man, and we shall see how that sterner man will answer him. Ephraim represents the kind of man who conies in after the battle has been turned to victory and says what he would have done if he had been invited. Ephraim represents the man who is always a day after the fair, a day after the battle,—he who comes in when the sun of prosperity is shining and says that if only he had had an invitation he would have been the first subscriber to the fund, the most liberal supporter of the movement, the most energetic member of the faith. Presently he will tell Jephthah that, and Jephthah will answer him otherwise than Gideon replied. It was well that Gideon,—whose name means "Hewer,"—should show that he was as gifted in the quality of self-control as were his three hundred followers. His answer is intellectually energetic, and in it—far away in it—is just a little suggestion of irony and the kind of flattery which has a sting in it. It was a wonderful answer. Haughty, proud Ephraim apparently could have crushed the Hewer and his three hundred men; so Gideon said: What have I now done in comparison with you? think how little I am! Why, you misspend your anger in being at all annoyed by anything that was in my power to do. Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than all the vintage of the house to which I belong? the few odd grapes you leave on the vine, are they not of more value than all the grapes that ever cluster on the vines of Abi-ezer? It was well to put the inquiry so. There is a skilful use of interrogation. The form of question has been adapted to strange uses. Gideon reminded Ephraim of what had been done, though even that was only done incidentally. Then he asks the other question: And what was I able to do in comparison with you? You are such a great people; if I had asked you to join in a war you might have contemned so insignificant a creature; look how tall you are, and how scarcely visible I am! "Then their anger was abated," showing that it was a bully's anger, and not a hero's. Their anger was abated when they were flattered. Yet this is the soft answer that turneth away wrath. The question well-planted, quite a thorn of a question, yea, a sharp sting; yet Ephraim, being of the mean quality he was, accepted the flattery and felt not the reproach. We almost long for Ephraim to come into contact with the other kind of man. Ephraim finding how this movement ended will try it again. Ephraim looked so well. What he would have done if he had only been invited! We wait for the man who can see through his falsehood and answer it with slaughter.
Was Gideon, then, soft and foolish? Has he lost the pith of his character? Take his treatment of the men of Succoth. Gideon asked that they would give loaves of bread unto the people that followed him, "For," said he, "they be faint." He seemed to ask for the people and not for himself: I am pursuing after kings—give the people loaves of bread that they may be able to keep up with me in this fierce haste. The princes of Succoth took advantage of weary men. There are cruel hearts that can take advantage of the hunger of other men—hearts that can say, Now is our opportunity; whilst they lack bread and are suffering from hunger, now we can vaunt it over them, now we can tread upon them. The princes of Succoth said, Your victory is not yet complete; you have to fight Zebah and Zalmunna before you can say the battle is ended; when Zebah and Zalmunna are in thy hands, then come, and we will give you bread enough; but do not suppose that you have found those whom you are only pursuing. Gideon was instantly fed with a nutriment that made him strong; forgetting his weariness, he said, "When the Lord hath delivered Zebah and Zalmunna into mine hand, then I will tear your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers." And he made the same answer to the men of Penuel: "When I come again in peace, I will break down this tower." So we must not argue that because a man gives a civil answer to a violent assault, therefore he is of mean quality, and is craven in spirit, and afraid of that which is high and mighty. The quiet answer is an illustration of self-control; the soft reply, the gracious retort, shows that the heart is trusting in the living God, and not in any accidental strength: they who dwell in the tower of heaven can speak quietly from the window to those who are looking up and who are expressing dislike far down at the base. In quietness possess your souls, and in sweet patience. Never answer fury with fury. The princes of Succoth and the men of Penuel were cold in their cruelty, mocking in their hostility; they were not in red-hot anger, but they were taking advantage of temporary weakness. Such persons were answered with fire red-hot. Gideon was thus a manifold character: a quiet man, few in words, threshing out his corn behind the rock that no Midianite might see him, quietly proceeding about his domestic affairs; suddenly taking fire when the touch from heaven came upon him, and a voice other than human told him he was a "man of valour," right mighty in battle, but most suave and gentle and gracious in the presence of unreasonable men, who did chide with him sharply for what they supposed to be an omission of duty or a breach of courtesy; then flaming up again into the very divinest anger because men refused weak soldiers bread, and mocked pursuers because they appeared to be unable to complete the journey. "I will tear your flesh;" literally, I will thresh your flesh, as he had been found by the prophet and the angel threshing his corn; "I will break down this tower," and those who are in it must take the consequences of its overthrow.
Was Gideon selfishly ambitious? To this inquiry there is a sublime reply. When the men of Israel saw the prowess of Gideon they said, "Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son's son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian" (Judges 8:22). That was his opportunity. All great prophets and soldiers have had such chances; John the Baptist had when he was asked if he was "that prophet." Then, everything depended upon his answer; and he answered, "I am not" The people would have taken Jesus and made him a king "by force," but he stood back from the mob and disdained their crown. "And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you" (Judges 8:23). There is the real quality of the man. Probe him where you will, you find his motive to be inspired by a consciousness of God's sovereignty and control. Gideon might have been a king, but was not; and, because he was not, he really was. There are many kingships, some crowned, some uncrowned; some material, imperial; some spiritual, intellectual, moral: the crown is in the man rather than upon him; if only upon him, the wind may blow it off, or some fool's hand may suddenly dash it to the ground. Gideon believed in what is known as the Theocracy,—that is, the reign of God,—God's kingship of Israel, God's headship of the Church, God's defence of all faith, truth, righteousness. It is not every man who can start a victorious war so nobly. Gideon lost nothing in the fight, but gained all things. So may we. Life is a battle. Every day has its controversy, its sharp tug, its fierce wrestling, its great conflict—a conflict within or without; a temptation addressed to the soul, or a fury assailing the estate. How are we to come out of the great combat; to bring out of the onslaught a clear character, a clean heart, a right spirit, a motive undamaged, and a probity unstained?—that we may so come out of the clash of arms and the spiritual assault should be our continual prayer. "Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand." Stand therefore, panoplied from head to foot, the left hand as the right, and the eyes fixed now on God, now on the foe.
Was Gideon, then, perfect? Is he by all these just encomiums removed from competition and enshrined in altitudes absolutely inaccessible? Is he an historical figure to be almost worshipped? Is he bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, snared by the same gins and traps, and falling now and again under the same blandishments? The perfect man, whom we feel to be so per-feet as to lose touch with our humanity, really would do us more harm than good. Gideon was no perfect man. He had a vulnerable heel; there was a bruise upon him which showed him to be mortal. Having had the offer of the crown and the throne and the rulership that was to be hereditary, Gideon said, No, but "I would desire a request of you." What is that? said Israel cheerfully. I would request" that ye would give me every man the earrings of his prey" (for they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites). Gideon could make some use of these little crescent-shaped ornaments. "And they answered, We will willingly give them. And they spread a garment"—perhaps the very overcoat that Gideon himself wore—"and did cast therein every man the earrings of his prey. And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was a thousand and seven hundred shekels of gold;" and, being in the giving mood, they said, Give him "ornaments, and collars, and purple raiment that was on the kings of Midian," and add to the store "the chains that were about their camels' necks." We do not blame them. They were royal-hearted in their liberality; therefore they gave with both hands. Gideon had but to make his mind known, and the people who followed him instantly responded with abounding, yea, with redundant generosity. Wherein, then, was the littleness of Gideon or his imperfectness? It was in the use which he made of the golden store: "Gideon made an ephod thereof, and put it in his city, even in Ophrah: and all Israel went thither and whoring after it"—lusting after it, desiring to make an idol of it and worship it—"which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house" (Judges 8:27). We did not expect this. Yet we might have expected it had we studied human nature closely. The very man who pulls down one idol sets up another. Gideon had an eye for colour. He liked the sleeveless coat of the priest. He noted its beautiful structure, its marvellous adornment, its oracular gems; and he was minded to make an ephod of all the gifts the people had given. This ephod became an idol, a charm, an amulet. It was looked at as if the very spirit of Gideon was in it. He who disestablished the national idol set up an ephod of his own! Alas for human inconsistency! The same Gideon, the man who took one of the bullocks and yoked it to Baal and dragged down the helpless god manufactures a little idol of his own! It was a shame; and yet it seems to be partly well, for now we can join Gideon at the point of his imperfection; perhaps we can get further into his character, and pray with as intense an energy, and grasp the eternal with as strong a faith. Take the man in the entirety of his character, in the sum-total of his being, and not in points and phases. Is it not so with all great reformers? The men who can finance the affairs of Europe can very seldom pay their own private accounts! The great and mighty reformers who could reconstruct the universe sometimes omit to wash their own hands! Are we not all human? Is it not perfectly possible to be both great and small—to have dragged down a god and to have set up an ephod?
Now surely Israel will be good. Israel has had schooling enough, and the time has now come when Israel will take up the policy of good behaviour, and be honest and true evermore. "Gideon the son of Joash died in a good old age, and was buried in the sepulchre of Joash his father, in Ophrah of the Abi-ezrites" (Judges 8:32). Now Israel will remember the old man's grave, and never be insincere or faithless any more. The thirty-fourth verse will disillusion us: "And the children of Israel remembered not the Lord their God, who had delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies on every side." Well, they may have gone down theologically, but still they are men. Agnostics claim to be men, and honourable men. History has never been very much on the side of those persons who imagine that theology can be given up and yet morality retained. We are bound to accept the evidence of the ages. What was the case of the children of Israel? They "remembered not the Lord their God," but they remembered Gideon. They will be kind to his children. They will say, We may have changed our theological views, but we are still men; we may have left the church, but we are still honourable citizens. The thirty-fifth verse will disenchant us: "Neither shewed they kindness to the house of Jerubbaal, namely, Gideon, according to all the goodness which he had shewed unto Israel." The retirement from the soundly religious point of view is accompanied by lapses of another kind. A man cannot close the Bible and say, Though I have abandoned that book, yet I am as honourable and true and pure and good as I ever was. If so, then history has been inverted; the facts of the centuries have been proved to be false. A man cannot give up prayer, and give his attention in any profound and enduring sense to the culture of a noble life. A man cannot love his neighbour until he has loved his God. There is logic in the sequence of the commandments: the first, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God;" the second, "and thy neighbour as thyself." It is a very dangerous thing for any of us to attempt today, in the face of so vast a body of historical evidence, to say that we will give up the Church, the sanctuary, the altar, the Bible, and be as good as we ever were. It is like the train saying, We will give up the engine, and travel just as easily and swiftly as we ever did. It is like the spring flower saying, I will give up the sun, and be as beautiful, delicate, and fragrant as before. It is like the body saying, I will stop the pendulum of the heart, and be as vigorous, strong, and energetic as I ever was. Do not attempt the risk; do not rush upon the mad adventure. The stream can only run in proportion as the fountain is filled and flowing; the earth is nothing of itself, but, being attached to the sun, being a little tiny servant in the great astronomic household, it swings on usefully, and yields us enough for the body. Said Christ, "I am the vine, ye are the branches." "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me." "Abide in me, and I in you." "He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing."
(A Varied Treatment)
"And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord: and the Lord delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years" (Judges 6:1).
GOD punishes indirectly as well as directly. He has agents—strange, rude servants of his, who unconsciously do his will. He can turn the wrath of man as it doth please him. According to the text it hath pleased God sometimes to punish man by man. Instead of calling Israel up into a mountain apart, and there with some great scourge chastising Israel for iniquity, he chooses to hand over his people to the rod of the tyrant; he allows Midian for seven years to torment Israel. We can punish one another. We do not know always what we are doing; sometimes in our apparent lawlessness and riotousness we are actually carrying out some divine decree, and God has chosen us, in the very intensity of our madness, to do some terrible thing for him, that some side or other of his holy government may be fully vindicated.
"And the hand of Midian prevailed against Israel: and because of the Midianites the children of Israel made them the dens which are in the mountains, and caves, and strong holds" (Judges 6:2).
If we had looked at the dens, and caves, and strongholds, we should have said: "Some wild beasts have made these; we see the marks of their great paws; see how they have torn the mountains and made themselves beds and chambers in the strongholds." So rudely and mistakenly do we interpret some things. The rough homes, these poor hiding places, that the wind could get at so fiercely, and the storm could rage in, were made by men. They who ought to have made the Most High their refuge, who ought to have made God himself their sanctuary, dug in the earth for a home and sought shelter among the rocks, when they might have rested in the secret places of heaven. We are doing every day—in so far as we are doing wrong—very much of the same thing. We are seeking to ourselves hiding places, we are planning for our own security, we have taken the defence of our life into our own hands, and we have said to money, "Thou shalt be my sanctuary;" to the poor power of our own arm, "Thou shalt be my defence," and we have said with pagan Ajax to his sword, "Thou art my God." Alas! poor man, thou hast been burrowing in the dust, scratching in the mud, hollowing out the rocks for a resting place, when God has asked thee to find security in his own power, quietude in his own peace, amplitude and beautifulness of home in his own infinite love. Think of a man tearing the mountains to pieces that he might get security from an enemy; think of a man tearing the rocks out of their places that he might hide himself from some storm of human fury! To such straits men are driven. Oh, that in being so driven they might catch some notion of the great moral purpose which is being worked out even by their torment and homelessness!
"And Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites" (Judges 6:6).
Then comes a most beautiful arrangement: Gideon was threshing wheat, and as he was pursuing his business the angel of the Lord appeared unto him and said, "The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour." God answers the prayers of the many by touching the life of one. As God had tormented man by man, so God will redeem man by man. This is a great mystery; but it is a mystery of love, it is a secret of the divine education of the world. As God did not take Israel apart into the wilderness, or to the top of a mountain and there scourge him with his own hand, so when he comes to deliver, he will make arrangements which show that in all his government of mankind he proceeds upon the principle of mediation; he saves us by making us to one another instruments of salvation. He blesses man by man, he redeems man by man,—the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost. What was Gideon doing? Threshing wheat. It seems a long way to us—because we will look at things only in their outward relationship—from threshing wheat to the command of a delivering army. It is a long way, if we measure the thing superficially and externally. But to God it is all one, whether you are blacking a shoe or studying a star; whether you are threshing your father's wheat when he had many servants and might have sent one of them to thresh it, or whether you are wearing the crown of God's empire. He says to a man, "A thousand men can plough that furrow, but one only here and there can do the work which I have for thee to do. Come away from the sycamore tree; come away from the receipt of custom." God calls men by his great and wondrous word from one duty to another. All duties, humble and lofty, obscure and imposing, stand equal before God, if so be we have a servant's spirit and a son's love. My friend, there is a call comes to you through your business every day. When you are threshing your wheat, God speaks to you; when you are counting your money, an angel finds you. When God wants a man he knows exactly where to find him. So let me rest content in my sphere. Why should I be chafing myself? Why should I be complaining of the iron bars that cage me in? If God wants me to do some greater work, he knows where I am, and what I can do, and what I am capable of attempting, and at his own time and in his own way he will come for me and promote me to rulership and empire. If I seize that principle, I am strong; I have repose, I have quietude; but if I let go that, I find I am the victim of everything that may happen; the Bible is a chapter of accidents, and verily it is the Bible of a fool!
So Gideon, startled at his work by the presence of an angel, said he did not see how God could be with Israel.
"If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites" (Judges 6:13).
Gideon approached the proposition of the angel very cautiously. He said, "If thou art an angel of the Lord, give me some proof of thine identity as such." He put God to the test. He was so startled by the revelation of God, that he was to be the deliverer of Israel, that he proposed test after test. He was a cautious man. Let us beware lest our caution be mere pedantry, and lest it degenerate into sophism. It is right to be cautious. Make sure, in the first instance, and then, having made your ground secure, proceed, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against you. But Gideon, having put the angel to the test, was in his turn put to the test. The angel told Gideon that he was to do a work at home. The idol had been worshipped by Israel, and now the idol was to be torn down. The angel said unto him, "Take thy father's young bullock, even the second bullock, of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it: and build an altar unto the Lord thy God upon the top of this rock, in the ordered place, and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the grove that is by it" (Judges 6:25-26). What was the meaning of all this? "Gideon, you must be tested." He who would make great revolutions must begin at home; he who would go out and strike a foreign enemy must begin reformation within his own circle. If you are going to fight the Midianites successfully you must reform at home. Take down the idol that thy father hath set up; tear down the idol from the elevated place; begin at home. He who begins there will fight well abroad. But if a man shall leave the idolatry in his own house, and go to fight some enemy that is on the outside, behold his victory shall perish, his renown shall be but the flash of a moment, and he shall have no real and abiding success. So must it be with us; we must go into our own hearts and do the great work of demolition there, so far as the empire of the devil is concerned, before we go out to revolutionise, to correct and to educate the public. How is it with our home life? How is it with the condition of our hearts? Are we preaching against idolatry in others and yet falling down before Baal ourselves? Are we filled with righteous indignation because of the evil doing of persons who are far away, whilst we ourselves have temples in our hearts set up to the idol gods? These inquiries search the very secrets of our lives; these questions are like the candle of the Lord held over the depths of our own being. Gideon will have a powerless arm when he challenges the Midianites if he go not forth and begin this moral revolution at home.
How did Gideon proceed? He was cautious here again. We shall find that caution was a characteristic trait in Gideon. He did not like to do this in the daytime because he feared his father's household and the men of the city. So what was he to do? The angel had appeared unto him, and a new light had shed itself over his life; a great destiny was proposed to him; he himself had suggested a test of the credentials of the angel, and had been satisfied with that test; in his own turn he himself was to be tested. Now what did he do? He said, "If I go out in the daytime the men of the city will seize me. What am I in their hands? Yea, my own father's household will fall upon me, and I shall be crushed by their cruel power. What shall I do? "And because he could not do it by day he did it by night. Earnest men can find opportunities if they want to do so. He is making a frivolous and impious excuse who says, "I do not like to do it; I am afraid to attempt it; I shrink from going forward; I prefer a modest retirement;" and so lets the work and the call of God slip out of his fingers. If you cannot do it in the morning brightness, you may do it in the evening twilight; if you cannot do it in the noontide glory, you may do it in the midnight darkness. Earnestness always finds opportunities; earnestness always finds the sycamore tree up which it can climb and see Christ. There is always a course open to tact, to reality, to sincerity, to determination. If any man is saying that he cannot make his way through all the difficulties that beset his life so as to get near to God, in the name of all history that is true, in the name of all history that is holy, in the name of all history that is worth preserving, I charge him with a mistake or a lie.
There was sad excitement on the morning of the next day. People finding that Baal had been overthrown were all astonished, and inquiry proceeded. How had this thing been done so suddenly? Done in the night-time? When it was discovered who had done it, they went to the father of Gideon and said, "Now shall thy son be slain for this. Bring out thy son that he may die, because he hath cast down the altar of Baal, and because he hath cut down the grove that was by it." And Joash was changed in a moment: you can touch a man through his child. You can touch his keenest sympathies. When they proceeded to lay a bloody hand upon the head of Gideon, he said, "If Baal be a god let him plead for himself." A grand tone, a right tone! If Baal be a god let him plead his own cause. What is a god worth if he cannot gather himself up again when somebody has thrown him down? The grandest things have been said by men when they have been cut to the quick, when their child's life has trembled in the balance. Joash was a new man from that moment. He made the grandest proposition that ever was made in the whole kingdom of idolatry. He saw Baal on his face. He said, "If Baal be a god let him get up again!" This is exactly what we say to all the gods of England. Have you been trusting to money, to power, to health, to friends, to luck, to chance? Let them help you in the hour of extremity, but, beware, there was once a scornful laugh among the nations, a scornful laugh ringing along the courses of the whirlwind: It was this, "Thy calf, O Samaria, hath cast thee off!" Samaria had worshipped the calf; God had risen in judgment to vindicate his government, to vindicate his claim to human attention, and when Samaria went to the calf it turned Samaria off. He is but a poor god who cannot save us in extremity—who cannot speak for himself—in whose arm there is no. power of self-defence.
Gideon, having been satisfied that he was called of God to do this great work, betook himself to it. But there was one difficulty in the way,—a strange difficulty, too, and peculiarly worthy of note. The Lord said, "Gideon, the people that are with thee are too many." When did God ever complain of having too few people to work with? Tell me. I have heard him say, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I." I have heard him say, "One shall chase a thousand, and two shall put ten thousand to flight" But I never heard him say, "You must get more men, or I cannot do this work; you must increase the human forces, or the divine energy will not be equal to the occasion." I hear him say, in the case before us, "Gideon, the people are too many by some thousands. If I were to fight the Midianites with so great a host, the people would say, after the victory had been won, 'Mine own hand hath saved me.'" Now the Lord proposed that a proclamation should be made unto the people, saying, "Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from Mount Gilead." How many of the people think you returned? Twenty-two thousand went off at once. You cannot do much with a crowd. The crowd never did anything for the world or for itself. Twenty-two thousand went away, ten thousand remained. Now the Lord will say ten thousand is just enough. No. He said, "Gideon, the people are yet too many; they will still boast of their numbers, and they will take all the credit to themselves, if I delivered Israel from the Midianites by their instrumentality; we must have fewer still." So they were taken down to the water, and every one that lapped of the water with his tongue as a dog lappeth he was set by himself, and he alone was taken; and out of the thirty-two thousand Israelites, but three hundred men were called upon to do the great work. Most people are afraid. It is only a man here and there can set himself up with true courage; there are only about three hundred out of every thirty-two thousand that are worth anything for real fighting, for real endurance, for real enterprise. The work of the world has always been done by the few; inspiration was held by a few; wealth is held by a few; poetry is put into the custody of but a few; wisdom is guarded in her great temple but by a few; the few saved the world; ten men would have saved the cities of the plain; Potiphar's house is blessed because of Joseph; and that ship tossed and torn upon the billows of the Adriatic shall be saved because there is an apostle of God on board. Little child, you may be saving all your house—your father, your mother, your brothers, and your sisters. Young man in the city warehouse, a blessing may be coming upon the whole establishment because of your prayer and sobriety, truthfulness, honour, and religious faith. We cannot tell how these things work. There is a secret behind all appearances, and we know not the meaning that underlies all the unrest, and storm, and confusion of life. Still, we may be of some use in other ways. If we cannot go forward to the fight, we can go back to the fields and plough. If I am not one of the three hundred men that can go and take Midian captive, I may be a quiet, homely man, who can repair a fence, or set a gate in order, or plough a furrow, or continue and complete the work which was interrupted by the calling away of the three hundred men. We can all do something. Cyphers are inexpressive and worthless by themselves, but when a unit is put at their head, they are gifted with articulation and value. So let the three hundred mighty ones lead the world; and those who can fight, and think, and scheme, and govern a state, and make law, and write books, go on, and God bless them! But let us who are of a humbler mould and poorer nature know that still there remains some kind of really useful good work for us to do. "Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when he cometh shall find so doing!"
What does this teach us? What is the application of this to the men of today? It is this: that human history is under divine control. God's eye, though in heaven, is looking upon the children of men. Afflictions do not spring out of the dust. If the rod be laid heavily upon our backs, it is because God would take out of us some desire that is evil, punish us for some way that is corrupt, seeking thus to recover us from the error we have committed. This history further teaches that the Lord himself finds a deliverer. Israel did not call upon Gideon, Israel did not call a council of war, and by some lucky stroke of genius deliver themselves. The Midianites were to be overthrown. This was a divine proposition, this was the arrangement of God. Salvation is from on high; deliverance is from the Lord of hosts. When there was no eye to pity, when there was no arm to save, his own eye pitied, and his own arm brought salvation. What is true in this little local case is true in the great and universal condition of humanity. The Redeemer is from heaven; the Deliverer is not a creation of earth. He who delivers mankind comes from the depths of eternity, having the ancientness of unbeginning time upon him, and the power of omnipotence in his arm. We cannot be delivered by ourselves. "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help." God hath laid help upon one that is mighty, and the name of that one is Jesus Christ, God the Son, who came into the world to save sinners, and redeem from a worse than Midianitish bondage.
Then God by all this teaches us that no flesh shall glory in his presence. Man shall not arise, and say, "We have devised a scheme of salvation; we have bought ourselves with gold of our own coining; we have found a file, by the use of which we can cut in twain the iron chains that bound us." God does the work. Our salvation is of his own mercy, of his own grace and power. It hath pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. He hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are. It hath pleased God to withhold the battle from the strong and the race from the swift, and give honour to whom he will, that no flesh shall glory in his presence!
See, yonder a man glorying in God's presence. He lifts up his hands, he lifts up his eyes, he lifts up his voice and says, he is "not as other men." He tells God how clean his hands are, how often he washes them, and to what perfection he has brought his character. There is also another man with downcast eyes, who has smitten his bosom, and who can only say with a sob, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." He is the man who takes heaven back with him to his home. But where there is a spirit of self-trust and self-glorying, there can be no true honour, there can be no true salvation. It is when I am nothing, when I renounce myself, when I cast my whole life upon the Son of God, that I know what it is to be gathered into the love of God, and to be hidden in the sanctuary of his power. The day of salvation is come, the Deliverer is amongst us. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus is come into the world to save sinners. There was a man in the ancient time, who, having been called to a charge, allowed his charge to slip from him, and when he was asked the reason, he said, "As thy servant was busy here and there, he was gone!" Let us be busy here and there, and yet mind the great business. Let us be threshing our wheat, and still be willing to show hospitality to the angels of God. Let us be doing the duty of the passing day, and yet let our doors be ajar that God may come in whenever it doth please him to visit us in our low estate!
Though he resisted the offer of a throne, Gideon fell into the error of meddling with the priestly office; a snare into which he may have been betrayed by the command, which he received and obeyed, to build an altar in his city of Ophrah, and offer on it a sacrifice to Jehovah. This isolated act, connected with his rescuing the people from the worship of Baal, and, with the manifestation of the Angel of Jehovah to him (compare and contrast 1Chronicles 21:28, 1Chronicles 22:1), was perhaps made the beginning of a system of sacrifices there; at all events, he prepared an ephod, the well-known high-priestly garment used in consulting God (Exodus 28:6-30; 1Samuel 23:6, 1Samuel 23:9). Whether he meant no more than to have a memorial of the divinely-appointed ephod, and the way of approaching God by it, as the eastern tribes had built an altar merely for a memorial (Joshua 22:26-29), it is impossible to tell; even so, there was a serious risk that he might go farther than he intended. But it is an old opinion that the high priests at Shiloh had early lost the confidence of the people, and had sunk into insignificance; certainly they are never mentioned or referred to in the Book of Judges, after Aaron's grandson the illustrious Phinehas (Judges 20:28); and long before Gideon's time there had been a schismatical and even idolatrous priestly system set up by the tribe of Dan in the town to which they gave their patriarch's name, and this, too, arose out of an unlawful family sanctuary and its ephod (Judges 17:5, Judges 18:30-31). There is no warrant whatever for imputing the same sin to Gideon; yet he did something which looked in that direction, possibly bringing the high priest from Shiloh to use his ephod at Ophrah, possibly using it himself. Even if he himself escaped the more serious consequences, yet (Judges 6:27), all Israel went a-whoring after it there, and it became a snare to himself and his house, with evil lurking in it, and ere long bursting forth with lamentable results. The high priest's ephod, with all its attendant ornaments in the breastplate, and with its precious stones, must have been very costly; we need feel no surprise that Gideon laid out upon his ephod 1,700 shekels of gold, or about 53 lb. avoirdupois; nor that so much gold was obtained from this vast multitude of the enemy, since the Arabs to this day manifest an extraordinary love for golden ornaments. Perhaps Gideon thought himself like Moses, when he received the contributions for the tabernacle (Exodus 35:20-23), many of those also being the spoils taken from their oppressors; while the men of war who willingly responded to his request may have felt like their ancestors when they made a similar free-will offering after an earlier Midianite war (Numbers 31:48-50). There were other dangers in Gideon's position, of which his polygamy is an evidence. Even had he been king, the law of God against multiplying wives was explicit (Deuteronomy 17:17): yet though he refused to be ruler, in those forty years of rest and prosperity, he must have assumed something of royal state in its worst oriental form, with a harem. And there is enough in the language of the original (comp. Nehemiah 9:7; Daniel 5:12) to lead to the conjecture that the name Abimelech, "A king's father," was one which he gave to his concubine's son in addition to the name given to him originally, one of those epithets or descriptive names which were common among the Jews: if so, the lad was one of those spoilt children like Adonijah (1Kings 1:6), who brought misery and shame upon their families. Gideon himself died "in a good old age," an expression used elsewhere only of his father Abraham (Genesis 15:15, Genesis 25:8), and of David (1Chronicles 29:28); but his death was the signal for the renewed outbreak of all evil. It seems to have taken the form of open apostasy, substituting "Baal of the Covenant" as their covenant God instead of Jehovah; though possibly there was an attempt to combine the worship of the two. And when the people did not remember Jehovah their deliverer no surprise need be felt at their thankless forgetfulness of his earthly instrument and representative, whose two names seem united into one at ver. 35, as if to recall and combine all that he had procured for Israel both of temporal and of spiritual blessings.—Rev. Principal Douglas, D.D.
"And Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites" (Judges 6:6).—The Midianites had oppressed Israel so grievously that the people were forced to flee from the open country, and to seek an asylum in mountain fastnesses, in caves, and in fortified cities (vi. I, 2). Midian was now at the head of a great confederacy, comprising the Amalekites and the leading tribes of Arabia, called by the sacred historian Beni Kedem ("children of the East," [Judges 6:3]). In early spring the confederates assembled their vast flocks and herds, descended through the defiles of Gilead, crossed the Jordan, and overran the rich plains of central Palestine, plundering and destroying all before them (Judges 6:5). In their distress the Israelites cried unto the Lord, and he sent a deliverer in the person of Gideon (8-13). The invaders were concentrated on Esdraelon—their flocks covering the whole of that splendid plain, and their encampment lying along the base of "the hill of Moreh," now called little Hermon (Judges 6:33; Judges 7:1, Judges 7:12). Gideon assembled his band of warriors at the well of Harod, or fountain of Jezreel, situated at the foot of Gilboa, and famed in after days as the scene of Saul's defeat and death (Judges 7:1). Gideon having collected the forces of Israel, followed the fugitives across the Jordan, up the hills of Gilead, and away over the plain into the heart of their own country. There he completely overthrew the whole host (Judges 8:12). The power of Midian was completely broken. In a single campaign they lost their princes, the flower of their warriors, and their vast wealth. "Thus was Midian subdued before the children of Israel, so they lifted up their heads no more" (Judges 8:28). Their name as a nation appears no more in history.
Almighty God, is not all our life a parable, full of instruction, full of rebuke, yet full of comfort? Thou art always coming to us in figures and incidents, and in things we cannot explain, mysteries that darken upon us, and lights above the brightness of the sun. Thou dost whisper to us in the night-season, when the darkness is round about us like prison walls; then thou dost call us out into the warm morning, into the liberty which is beyond, large and glorious liberty. Thou dost teach us by our disappointments and sorrows: our losses thou dost make eloquent with instruction; and, behold, night and day thy purpose is to make us wise unto salvation. O that we had the hearing ear, the understanding mind, the attentive heart; then thy gospels would not be lost upon us, but would be to us as light from heaven. Make thy word live as we read it May we know it to be true because of the answering voice within. May our judgment witness, and our conscience testify, that this is none other than the voice of the living God. So shall our life be strengthened, beautified, and introduced into great freedom. We come before thee evermore to seek thy pardon, for our sins are as numerous as our days: we spoil every hour by some touch of rudeness, some act of violence, some aversion of soul from light and truth. But that we know this sinfulness is itself a blessing: if we confess our sin, we know that whilst we are confessing it at the cross of Jesus Christ thy Son, our Saviour, thou dost look upon him rather than upon us, and for the sake of his work thou dost pardon the iniquity which we repent This is our joy, this is the good news from heaven: we accept it, and answer it, and are glad because of thy forgiveness. Direct us all our days. Their number dwindles; their light is uncertain; their messages are more urgent. Help us to seize the passing time, and inscribe it with love and service and sacrifice. Dry the tears of our sorrow. Lift the burden from us when it is more than we can carry. Attemper the wind to the shorn lamb. Undertake for us in all perplexities and embarrassments and difficulties, and give us the joy of those whose perfect trust is in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Amen.