God’s Strength; Our Weakness
Well, this morning we continue our study of the book of Judges in chapter 7. Many Americans are surprised and even maybe a bit confused by the indomitable resolve of the Ukrainians in the face of such overwhelming odds and horrific loss of life and property. And as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, it might help for all of us to understand some of the history that energizes the Ukrainian people, and there’s no way I can cover that history. So, let me just pick one event that may help us understand.
Ukraine was absorbed into the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in 1922. In 1929, Stalin, in the name of equality and productivity, wanted to collectivize the farms in Ukraine. Ukraine was known as the Breadbasket of the Soviet Union for its large fertile fields and productive farms. Stalin forced the farmers to submit to government oversight, and anyone who didn’t cooperate or meet the quotas he established was removed from his farm.
Anne Applebaum, in her book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, estimates that 50,000 Ukrainian families — that’s not individuals; that’s 50,000 Ukrainian families — were taken from their farms and sent to Siberia. Trevor Erlacher, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, writes,
“Stalin appears to have been motivated by the goal of transforming the Ukrainian nation into his idea of a modern, proletarian, socialist nation, even if this entailed the physical destruction of broad sections of its population.”
And this dream of socialism promises so much equality and prosperity, but delivers the opposite. By 1932 Stalin had confiscated many of the farms and much of the grain, and the people began to starve. At the peak of this man-made famine, the bodies of people who starved to death could be seen scattered throughout towns. In many cities, a third of the people died. Orphans were everywhere. Many entire families were wiped out. Historians estimate between 3,000,000 and 7,000,000 people lost their lives in this completely preventable tragedy. And the reason it’s hard to get numbers is the Soviet Union has worked very hard to wipe this event out of existence.
This famine is known as the Holodomor. In Ukrainian, that means “death by hunger.” But to this day, Russia denies that the Holodomor even occurred. They acknowledge that there was a famine. Too many pictures leaked out to deny that. But they insist it had nothing to do with Stalin’s policies; the Ukrainians brought it on themselves. In 2015, a Sputnik News article (Sputnik News is a propaganda arm of Russia) called it “The Holodomor hoax — a myth of anti-Soviet propaganda.”
In 2006, the U.S. Government authorized construction of the Holodomor Genocide Memorial in Washington, D.C. And this is a vivid memorial (next picture) of moving from huge harvests of grain to nothing. The U.S. Senate adopted a resolution on October 3, 2018, recognizing the Holodomor as genocide. There are many ways to wipe out a people in an agricultural context. Seizing control of someone’s farm and food is fatal. This was the experience of Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. And this was the experience of Israel 3,000 years earlier.
As we learned in Judges 6 last week, the Israelites were in a desperate situation. Each year at harvest time, the Midianites, Amalekites, the people of the East would invade the Jezreel Valley. Now the Jezreel Valley is and was to Israel what Ukraine was to the Soviet Union, the Breadbasket of Israel. And they would set up camp and plunder the farms, leaving the Israelites with no food for the next year. God heard their cry for help and called a man named Gideon to lead his people out of this oppression. But Gideon struggled to believe God. And Judges 6, as we saw last week, puts God’s patience on full display as Gideon keeps questioning God, asking for another sign, needing more evidence, needing more proof. Gideon is willing to trust God but only on his terms, not God’s terms. And so, Judges 6 shows the patience of God, persistently seeking to overcome Gideon’s skepticism. And God seemed to be going along with Gideon’s craving to be saved in a way that made sense to him in Judges 6.
But something very unusual happens in Judges 7. Let’s look at the geographical setting. Judges 7:1.
“Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod. And the camp of Midian was north of them, by the hill of Moreh, in the valley.”
Now this hill or mount Moreh … If we look at that map again, you will see right near the “of” of the Valley of Jezreel is a bump. That is the hill or mount Moreh. The big blue spot here in this map represents the Midianite army. Right below that spot, Gideon was gathering his men, and you’ll see the spring of Harod mentioned in verse 1. This is where Gideon’s men gathered, and you can actually still visit that spring today in Israel. It’s known as Harod’s Spring or Gideon’s Spring. It is still flowing. It has become a beautiful national park in Israel.
Well, there are three phases to the battle we’re about to see in Judges 7: Build Up, Stand Up, Mop Up. Let’s look at those one at a time.
First of all, the Build Up in verses 2-18. Prior to the battle, God says that Gideon’s army is too big. Verse 2,
“The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, “My own hand has saved me.”‘”
Now, this makes no sense to our human logic. As we’ll see in chapter 8, verse 10, the Midianite army consists of around 135,000 soldiers. Gideon’s army is around 32,000. So, it’s 4:1 against Gideon, and God is saying, “I don’t like the odds.” Gideon’s thinking, “That’s crazy.” Gideon needs to be weaker. Verse 3.
“Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained.”
So, now the odds are ridiculous, but God is still not OK with them. Verse 4.
“The people are still too many.”
You can still do the math and find a way to figure out how you could achieve victory. So, in verses 4-8, God sets up a filter to distinguish between those who will fight and those who will go home. He takes them down to that river we just saw, and he calls Gideon to distinguish between lappers and slurpers. The lappers are those who … like a dog, but they hold the water in their hand and then like a dog, they lap out of their hand. The slurpers bend over on their knees, put their face in the water, and slurp directly out of the water. And from this distinction, verse 6,
“And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.’”
Now this is where a lot of sermons go off the rails because at this point, we can begin to argue, “If you’re going to build an army, if you’re going to build a business, if you’re going to have a successful ministry, you’ve got to find lappers. You don’t want to find slurpers. You don’t want to go in your office and see a bunch of people bent over, slurping. You want people who are alert. They’re ready to go. They’re ready to fight. They’re ready to start.”
Totally misses the point, I believe, because you could flip that, couldn’t you? You could say, “If you’re going to build a successful army, you don’t need people who look like they’re at a British tea party, you know, holding the hand up, drinking. You want people who aren’t afraid to get their knees dirty, their faces are in the water. They’re all in!”
This is why I don’t believe these filters are intended to set up a formula for business or military success. Try using these when training Navy SEALs, and your country’s in trouble because the point is not to set up a formula. It’s exactly the opposite. These filters are arbitrary for a very specific reason.
Even the first filter, which makes sense to us, right? “Send home the fearful.” Who wants cowards in their army? My question is, on the night before you go to battle, 4:1, odds against you, who isn’t fearful? Besides the few who are currently experiencing a manic episode, everybody else is going to be a bit fearful. Even Gideon, we’re going to see in a few verses, is still fearful. Why wasn’t he sent home? The point is God is so kindly reminding Gideon that he is going to have victory, not based on some military formula, but based on God’s provision. And this is huge for those of you who struggle, which is pretty much all of us in different ways, with various forms of perfectionism. We want to control the variables, and God is stripping that away. Gideon’s army is too big.
Second — it’s part of the Build Up — Gideon’s faith is too small. Verses 9-18, God sends Gideon on a field trip with his servant Purah to listen in on a couple of Midianite soldiers who were on guard duty at one of the outposts. Verse 13,
“When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade. And he said, ‘Behold, I dreamed a dream, and behold [And this is so dream-ish, isn’t it?] a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian and came to the tent and struck it so that it fell and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat.’ And his comrade answered, ‘This is no other than the sword of Gideon, the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given into his hand Midian and all the camp.’ As soon as Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, ‘Arise, for the Lord has given the host of Midian into your hand.’”
This boosted Gideon’s faith enough to mobilize his micro army. He gave them instructions, weapons, and they were ready to Stand Up. Verses 19-22, Gideon divided the men, the 300 men, into three companies. He armed them with three very strange weapons. He gave them trumpets, which would have been ram’s horns; torches; and jars, clay pots to go over the torches. And at Gideon’s signal, these companies that had surrounded the Midianite encampment, were to blow their trumpets, hurl down the clay jars to make a smashing sound, and then hold up their torches and scream, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”
Now, can you imagine how terrifying that would be for the Midianites? First of all, we don’t know for sure if God did this, but we know at least he gave some of them dreams. Can you imagine if all of them …. Any big dreamers here? Vivid dreams. In the middle of the night, you wake up and you’re not sure if you’re still dreaming or if this is reality. The line is fuzzy. And they hear this terrifying trumpet sound totally surrounding them and then a smashing sound, which they don’t know what kind of creature is coming through the tundra toward them? And then you hear this scream, “Sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”
And between the dreams that disorient, the trumpet blasts that terrify, the smashing sounds and then the blinding torch beams (remember there’s no electricity), the Midianite army was in chaos! And so, they leapt up, started running, swinging swords, thinking this massive army that they had dreamed about was upon them. What was Gideon’s army doing? Look at verse 21.
“Every man stood in his place around the camp, and all the army [the Midianite army] ran. They cried out and fled.”
Build Up, Stand Up, and now for Mop Up. Verse 23,
“The men of Israel were called out from Naphtali and from Asher and from all Manasseh, and they pursued after Midian.”
Gideon called for help from Ephraim. They captured and executed some of the Midian princes, Oreb and Zeeb, verse 25. It’s interesting that they mention where they were executed. They were executed at a rock and a wine press. Now, that’s a beautiful bookend to the battle, because remember, back in chapter 6 … The wine press, and the rock symbolized Gideon’s fear, God’s forgiveness. And now these symbols of failure become the symbols of victory.
So, next week, we’ll talk more about the Mop Up. For today, what is God teaching us in Judges 7? Now, there are a lot of huge themes here, but I want us to try to focus in on one. God displays his strength in our weakness for his glory and our joy. God displays his strength in our weakness for his glory and our joy. God is saying to Gideon, “Gideon, your army is too big. Your brain is too busy. You’re still trying to trust me on your own terms.” It’s just another manifestation of “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Gideon, you don’t want a Savior, you want a formula. You want to trust me if you understand me.
And God strips away all of the ingredients of successful military victory: the numbers, the weapons, the battle plan. And I know this isn’t biblical, but I just keep imagining what the brainstorming session would have looked like for this. You know, God has gotten some feedback from the angels, and they’re throwing out ideas, and one angel is like, “Let’s use trumpets, torches, and jars.” “OK. There’s no bad idea. But, Gabriel, you need to get back on your medication. Trumpets, torches, and jars for a military victory.” And God says, “I like it. Let’s go with it.” Why? It’s so random. It is unrepeatable. I don’t know of another time when a much smaller army beat a much bigger force using mainly trumpets, torches, and jars. But what is God saying to us in this?
I believe he is addressing Gideon obviously, but indirectly all of us, who live our lives in such a way that we want to analyze something, formalize something, and then mechanize it. Let’s repeat this, and we’re ready! We’ll blog on Five Easy Steps to Build a Winning Team of Lappers. How do you get the slurpers off your team because they are dragging you down? And we want to be able to repeat that and do seminars on that. And God is using very specific means here to communicate a very specific message, and that is, “Gideon, I want you to trust me, not your capacity, not your brainstorming sessions, not your strategy, not your formula.” No, there’s not nothing wrong with those. There’s a place for that. But there are times where God puts us in a place with our backs to the wall to remind us that our confidence is not in horses or chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord. And this is really the essence of the gospel of the Kingdom.
Remember last year when we were in Mark 4:26? Jesus told a parable,
“The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Now what is the center of this parable, the key to understanding it? “He knows not how.” He, yes, can plant, water, but a miracle has to happen under the ground for there to be this harvest. And that is deeper than your formula or your ability to calculate.
Paul said it, it’s very similar. Ephesians 2:8,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing …”
Let’s say that out loud together: “Not your own doing.” Again: “Not your own doing.” In other words, there is no human being who is going to stand before God and say, “Ha ha, God, I get it. Yeah, I know I’m a sinner, but have you looked at my life, the whole thing? There’s some bad, but do you see it? There’s more good. Do you see, God?” There’s no human being who’s going to be able to say that the victory, in this case heaven, was achieved through some kind of your own doing: “I found it! I figured it out!” Just like Gideon. Gideon’s men couldn’t stand before God and say, “God, you see? Did you see the way we wielded those jars? The Navy SEALs are jealous to watch our military prowess with those torches standing like the Statue of Liberty.” It’s ludicrous! God gave them a victory in such a way that he alone could get the glory. And no person …. Yes, they had to obey. Yes, they had to do what he said, trust him.
“But this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship.”
You say, “What about good works?” Well,
“we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
The good works flow out of his grace,
“which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
I Corinthians 1:27,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God shows what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are [why?] so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him …”
Now get this! Everything you’re deficient in, everything you can’t muster up enough of,
“because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us the wisdom [we lack] wisdom from God, the righteousness [we don’t have righteousness] and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
And God keeps us. This isn’t just, “Yeah, I had that moment when I trusted Christ.” Yes, all of us, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you have that moment where you say, “OK, God, I turn from trusting in myself. I trust in you, Jesus. Thank you for dying, rising, defeating sin and death. My confidence is being relocated from myself to you.” If you’re a believer in Jesus, you have that moment, whether you can remember the exact time or not, that repentance in faith occurs. But then he calls you into a lifestyle of dependence. It’s not like, “Yeah, I did that … Saved by faith, and now I live by works.” No, we live by faith. And as Paul, who had followed the Lord for a long time when he wrote this, said,
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you’”
even in your weakness. No, because of your weakness.
“‘for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I boast [notice the joy piece] all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I feel like God has been teaching me this in such vivid ways, and I wish I had time to share five or ten examples, but I’m going to tell you one. I shared this with a few of you, but a month ago when we were about to go to Israel, the day before we were to catch the plane, I got a positive COVID test. And you need not get a positive. You have to have a negative to get into the country. And so, that next morning … And I had had COVID the month before; so, I knew for ninety days you have a higher chance of triggering a false positive. But you know how that plays in your head? All of a sudden you’re like, “Oh yeah, I do feel a little sick.” So, I’m thinking, “God, what is going on?” And this past week, I went back and read my journal from that.
So, this is a Tuesday morning, and we’re supposed to fly out that afternoon, and I’m supposed to lead the team. And I’m usually pretty good about pivoting and changes at the last minute, but we’ve gone through so many hurdles. Israel’s closed. Israel’s open. Team is on. We’re not. We’re going. We’re not going. And then finally, it felt like the Lord had opened this door, and we’re ready to go, and then this. And so, as I was rereading my journal this morning, you know, just that turmoil in my heart. “Lord, I’m okay with going or if … I’m not really happy about it … But if you say, ‘Don’t go … But this go, don’t go, go, don’t go. Do I pack? Do I not? Do I get a backup plan?’”
Well, we had a second test, just in case, scheduled for that morning. And so, I went and took that test, and God seemed to be saying to me, “I’m not telling you whether you’re going to go or not. I want you to be ready to go or ready to stay.” That’s frustrating. A couple hours before we were to go to the airport, I get an email from the testing place, and I’m about to click on it, and I’m just like, “This is a really weird feeling. If it’s a negative, I’m going. If it’s a positive, I’m not.” But more than that, even if it’s a negative, I will get on the plane, Lord willing, fly over there, and then you have to pass another test or you’re in quarantine for a week. And so, “OK, Lord, I’m not sure if I’m going or staying, but if I’m going, I may be staying. So, I need to pack for a prayer retreat.” But then if I’m able to be with the team, then you still have to get another negative to leave the country. And this is a great time to grumble. It’s a great time to debate COVID protocols, and God was saying none of that. “I am doing a work in your heart that’s much deeper than that. I want you to live this way. I want you to follow me this way.”
Some of us need to have a midlife crisis. We have grown way too comfortable, way too secure and predictable. And I’m not saying just blow it up just to blow it up, but I am saying God is teaching us in Judges 7, “Will you trust me even when you can’t figure out the formula, even when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring?” And God is doing this in so many different ways and much more serious ways than a trip to Israel. But now, as I look back on that trip and think, why did I have so much joy on that trip? Well, you could say, “Well, the team was amazing, and they were so much fun!” You could say, “You’re in Israel!” But there’s nothing magical about the dirt in Israel. There was something much deeper going on in my heart. Every day is a gift from God. What is it like to just give that moment, that day, over to him and say, “God, I release control of today, my plans, my capacity to figure it out, to impress you or others, to control the variables. I trust you”? In a very simple way, that is the message of Judges 7. And that’s the call, an invitation to all of us. Let’s pray.
Father, when you do this to us, when you do what you did to Gideon to us, we can often feel frustrated, abandoned, mistreated. When you say things that sound so crazy to us, like “the people with you are too many,” when you bring us through seasons of illness, cancer, job loss, loneliness, conflict, financial need, and everything within us is just screaming, “God, you can fix this!” But you seem determined to get deeper into our hearts and get to the root of where our confidence lies, God, we need your help to relocate our confidence from the things that ultimately will not be secure, even when we delusionally think we figured them out, and to trust you. I pray that there would be some here for the first time who say, “Jesus, I am trusting you with my soul, with my eternity, with my today, for forgiveness through your death, through your burial, through your resurrection. My hope is in you. My trust is in you.” Lord, you hear that prayer. Would you save that soul?
Lord, for many of us who are really wrestling with control right now, we want to trust you, but we want to trust you on our terms, in our way. Thank you for this message that you’ve spoken to us. We fix our eyes on you. If you decide you want to use trumpets and torches and jars in my life, Lord, I’m in. Even if I don’t understand it. You have used a means that is baffling — a cross, a vehicle of death to bring life. Certainly, you can use whatever you choose to use to do the work that you are doing in our hearts and lives. And Lord, we ask that you would give us eyes to see and hearts to say, “Yes, yes, Lord, we’re in.” Thank you for speaking to us this morning. In Jesus’ name. Amen.