135,000 soldiers filled the valley of Jezreel. Like a swarm of locusts they noisily consumed every living thing before them: crops, cattle, donkeys, grass, trees, wild animals, everything. When they moved through, nothing was left.
Within earshot of this vast swarm of humanity, Gideon bent over with his threshing rake, tossing what little grain he could in the bottom of a winepress, afraid. Perhaps he was peeking over the edge of the winepress when he spied a man sitting under the oak tree in Ophrah that belonged to his father, Joash.
“The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
Looking around: “You talkin’ to me? Well … if the Lord is with us, then why do I need to thresh the grain in this winepress? Eh? Why is Israel overrun by these locusts, these Midianites? Why are we so poor, then? Answer me that! Where are the miracles? The deliverances? What about the stories my daddy told me when I was knee-high to a grasshopper? The Lord cut us loose. He handed us over to Midian … mighty warrior … let me be. I’m busy.”
“Shut up! … and listen. You have some strength left. Go and save your people from Midian. It’s Me talkin’ here … you will set your people free–by my hand.”
“You serious? I’m from the weakest clan in Manasseh, and I’m the least of that line.” Something clicked in Gideon’s mind. “You mean it? You’re going to use me to do this thing? You’d do that? Really?”
You know the rest of the story. If you don’t, you’ll find the story written in Judges chapters six through eight.
I find Gideon’s story encouraging, if puzzling. Gideon is essentially a nobody in Israel. Today we’d call him an “everyman”. He’s taking care of his family, putting food on the table, trying to keep his head down and make it through tough times.
He’s honest. He speaks his mind. No filters. Even to the angel of the Lord. Even though he couldn’t wrap his head around the great tragedy that he was living through, he knew that Jehovah was (and is) the God of Israel. He wants to believe what he’s being told. It’s just so blasted hard when he looks both around him and within. He’s confounded. “Why me?”
His story shows me that it is OK to speak plainly to the Lord in prayer. God doesn’t smite him or grind him to dust. The ground doesn’t open up and swallow him. His questions are honest, not rebellious. He’s not opposing God, he’s just trying to understand, to discern the words being spoken to him. Though there is a twinge of fear in his heart, he obeys anyway. He fears the Lord more than he fears what might happen if he obeys.
His first task is to tear down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole, these abominations to false gods. He goes in the dead of night, but he goes nonetheless.
Gideon’s story is a picture of God’s grace and mercy. He uses a no-name to do deeds that were so pivotal in God’s greater story that they would be recounted for thousands of years. Gideon, though hesitant, was obedient. God used him to deliver Israel. He conquered an army of 135,000 with a mere three-hundred men, delivering Israel.
What can be learned here that will help us shake the gates of hell?
God chooses the weak, the nameless, the forgotten to fight the war in the heavenly places. Jesus chose fisherman and tax collectors and hot-headed zealots to be his disciples. When God chose the nobodies he equipped them to follow. They were chosen for their obedience and character, not for their name. He empowered them by his Spirit to carry out bold and courageous missions. God acted in the midst of their obedience and faith.
There is a stern warning here as well. Israel was quickly confused about who delivered Israel. They wanted to make Gideon their leader. But Gideon was not having any of it. His response was as straightforward as his initial prayers, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son. The Lord will rule over you.”
He next did something, perhaps with good intention, that became a snare. He took his share of the plunder and made into an ephod, which became an idol to the people. They worshiped the thing that represented victory to them. They worshiped “success.”
Today there is no end of books, blogs, and emails promising the secret to growing a successful church, building your mailing list, making a platform for your message. More often than not these are thinly-veiled business principles reimagined for religion and reputation. And what if we build a list of 100,000 readers or congregate of thousands of people? Gideon’s success became a snare for Israel. Could not our “success” be a snare to us? Will “success” make Jesus’ name famous or ours? (I’m not suggesting that well-attended churches or highly read authors or growing organizations are wrong or evil. By no means. I am suggesting that success doesn’t necessarily indicate blessing or eternal reality and that we should guard our hearts from seeking the wrong things.)
Shaking the gates of hell is something that happens in the heavenly realms and occasionally manifests in this one. Israel looked at the man God used to bring deliverance and wanted to worship the man. He wasn’t looking glory for his “success”. He was simply obeying. Whose glory is at stake anyway? God’s or ours? If we are seeking glory over obedience, it is surely time for repentance, humility, and submission to the Lord of hosts lest we destroy ourselves with our “success” and bring shame to the only Name that matters.