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Freedom is never free

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Judges 7

This is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Independence Day is always a deeply moving experience for me. I love the flags on display, the parades, the concerts. Each year our nation looks to our birth with gratitude, so we can look to our future with commitment.

And we remember that freedom is never free.

Edward Gibbon explained the fall of the Roman Empire this way: “In the end, they wanted security more than they wanted freedom.” It has been noted that “following the path of least resistance is what makes rivers and men crooked.”

By contrast, Andrew Jackson observed that “one man with courage makes a majority.”

As we continue our exploration of Judges, we come today to a time when one man made a majority that saved his nation. On the Sunday before America’s Independence Day, it seems appropriate that we remember such courage and its value for our nation. And that we choose it wherever we need the power of God today.

Prepare as though everything depended on you

I once heard a preacher describe his work this way: prepare as though everything depended on you, then preach as though everything depended on God. First, we’ll explore Gideon’s preparations, and learn their practical lessons for us. Then we’ll discuss God’s response, and the ways he still works today.

As the story begins, “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands” (Judges 7:2). When was the last time a general faced this problem? Imagine a pastor saying to his staff, “We have too much money for our programs this year.” Or a mission leader saying to missionaries, “We have too many people for that mission field.” Yet that is precisely what God said to what must have been an astounded Gideon.

Remember the size of their foe: “The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore” (v. 12). No wonder the place where the Hebrew army camped came to be known as the spring of “Harod” (v. 1), a word which means “timidity” in Hebrew.

Camels were the desert tanks of the ancient world. Bands of marauders on camelback were too fast and strong for foot soldiers; such an advantage was the main reason the Midianites had become so oppressive over Israel (cf. Judges 6:3–5). Picture a vast army filling an entire valley, its tanks as numerous as the sand on a seashore, and you’ll get a sense of Gideon’s problem. Any wise general would want all the men he could muster in attacking such a foe.

But the outcome of the battle was not in question, for God had already promised, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together” (Judg. 6:16). In question was whether his people would learn something significant from the victory they were about to gain. Whether they would return to their pattern of sin and its tragic consequences or learn to trust in the one true Lord once and for all. Whether they would follow Gideon or follow God.

The Lord’s motive was clear: he would work “in order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her” (Judges 7:2b). God will not share his glory. To allow us to trust in anyone but him would be to encourage idolatry. His glory is always to our good.

So he instructed Gideon to reduce the size of his army in two ways. First, he was to release any of the men who “trembles with fear” (v. 3), reducing the 32,000-member force to 10,000. Such fear would discourage the rest of the army: “Is any man afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his brothers will not become disheartened too” (Deuteronomy 20:8). And such numbers would take the glory from God.

But still the army was sufficient to believe that it won the victory in its own strength, so the Lord required a second test. He led them to the spring of Harod; those who “lapped with their hands to their mouths” were to stay, while those who knelt at the water and drank with their mouths were dismissed (Judges 7:6). The former were more ready for battle, with one hand at their sword. The latter were on their hands and knees, easy victims for an attack. This second reduction left Gideon with three hundred soldiers, who picked up the provisions and trumpets of the others (v. 8).

I stood at this very spot the last time I was in Israel. The area is unprotected and susceptible to assault. The very act of leading an army, already reduced by 66 percent, to this unsafe place where they could be reduced by another 97 percent, was implausible in the extreme.

From Gideon’s example, we learn to listen to God before we act for him. His ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8).

And we learn to be obedient with today and trust God for tomorrow. Nothing of Gideon’s preparations made any military sense. To dismiss 22,000 fearful soldiers was bad enough, but to release 9,700 men who were ready to fight to the death was to commit battlefield suicide. But if Gideon had not obeyed the Lord’s direction, God would not have given him the victory.

Obedience is always the key to understanding. We stand up to Pharaoh before God defeats his armies. We step into the Jordan River before God stops its flood. We march around Jericho before it falls. We trust God in the lion’s den before he stops the lion’s mouth. We praise him before the fiery furnace and meet him in its flames. We must get out of the boat before we can walk on the water to Jesus.

Who are your Midianites? What battles are you facing this week? Have you listened to God? Have you obeyed God? If so, you’re ready to fight on his side. And he hasn’t lost a battle yet.

Fight as though all depended on God

Now Gideon and his tiny army were ready for battle. They were outnumbered beyond belief. But they had the high ground at the hill of Moreh, so that “the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley” (Judges 7:8). And they were prepared to attack “at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard” (v. 19). The Jews divided in the night into three “watches”: sunset to 10 p.m., 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and 2 a.m. to sunrise. So, the Midianite army would have just gone to sleep when the battle began. The strategic advantage was Gideon’s.

These decisions did not cause the rout of the Midianite armies, however. A crucial strategy was giving each of the three hundred men a trumpet to blow and an empty jar with torches inside to hold (v. 16). The “trumpet” they used was a ram’s horn, a very loud instrument (cf. Exodus 19:13, where a single horn was loud enough to signal to the entire Hebrew nation that it was safe to approach Mt. Sinai).

The fact that the entire original army of 32,000 needed only three hundred trumpets indicates the strength of their sound. An opposing army hearing such a loud blast, right on their camp, would obviously assume a much larger force than Gideon’s army possessed.

Like the trumpets, the torches were carried only by a small number of troops in a conventional army. They made it difficult for the soldier to wield a sword or shield and exposed his position to enemy attack. Nighttime hand-to-hand battles were more effectively waged in the darkness as well. A large number of torches would be counterproductive to the army’s success.

What torches the army required were kept in clay jars, so they would remain lit but their flames low; in this way, the army could creep up in the night undetected. When they broke the jars, the sudden flames surrounding the Midianite camp would be a second indication of a massive army on their perimeter.

Note that the Hebrew army held their torches in their left hands and their trumpets in their right hands (v. 20a). They had no sword or shield in hand when they began their battle, only the sword of their mouths: “they shouted, ‘A sword for the Lord and for Gideon'” (v. 20b). Gideon’s army was reduced by 99 percent, and those who remained for the battle were completely unarmed. Has any army ever waged a more unconventional battle?

What was the result? The entire Midianite army was routed. They had no time to light their own torches and were too far from Gideon’s to see those around them. And so, they attacked each other in the night, probably assuming that the Hebrews had run into their camp and were at their side (v. 22). Not to mention a likely stampede on the part of the frightened, massive camel herd.

Those who escaped the camp slaughter fled into the Jordan valley, where they could have retreated to the south, crossed the river, and regrouped. So “Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites” (v. 23). These tribes were located in the area of the battle and could join in the military pursuit. Clearly, an army of three hundred could not defeat the Midianite forces in open terrain, but the reassembled Israelite battle forces were sufficient to the task.

Still the Midianites had a lead on their pursuers, so Gideon sent a messenger to the hill country of Ephraim to the south, calling them into the battle (v. 24). Ephraimite soldiers got to the Jordan ahead of the Midianites and cut off their retreat. When the fleeing Midianite soldiers got to the place they thought would be safe, they found themselves opposed by an army which now possessed the numbers to defeat them (v. 25).

Meanwhile, Gideon and his army of three hundred were not finished with their unlikely victory. They crossed the Jordan further north, pursuing the Midianites who had fled that way (Judges 8:4). They found the remaining enemy force of 15,000 men, fell upon the unsuspecting army, routed them and killed their kings (vv. 10–12, 21).

What was the final military tally? The Midianites lost more than 135,000 men (Judges 8:10), defeated by an army which began their assault with 300 in number. The Midianite threat against Israel was destroyed, finally and forever. All because one man was willing to prepare as God directed and fight as God-empowered. And God was glorified by one of the most stunning, unlikely victories in military history.

Conclusion

What army has you outnumbered today? Where are your class members fighting against long odds? Have you been defeated by temptation, discouraged by hardship, or isolated by loneliness?

Listen to God and do as he says. Make your preparations to be used by his Spirit and for his glory. Then step into the battle, trusting him to keep his promises. Whatever he has said, he will do. Wherever he has called you, he will go before you.

A torch and trumpet in the hand of a soldier of God will defeat an army of swords and shields, every time. “One man with courage makes a majority.”

Just be sure you’re the one.