God + One
James C. Denison
“Extinguish Lights” is a bugle melody played by the military for nearly two centuries to signal the end of day and call soldiers to bed. It was apparently first played at a military funeral during the Civil War, and has since come to be identified especially with that purpose.
A government resolution adopted eight years ago asks each of us to pause on Memorial Day at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon to remember all those who died in the service of our country. The resolution asks us to spend that moment in silence or in listening to “Taps.” We will do both today.
This morning we will listen to another trumpet call as well, one which predates “Taps” by 32 centuries. For 40 days after Easter we celebrated the gospel, the good news that God loves us. Now we’re learning how to experience that good news personally, wherever we need God’s help and hope today.
On Mothers’ Day, Hannah taught us to surrender our Samuel, giving our best to God, believing that he can do more with us than we can do with ourselves. Last week, David taught us to ignore our critics and trust God’s power over God’s enemies, believing that a slingshot in God’s hand is mightier than the tallest giant.
Now you and I are called to the kind of courage which will follow this God unconditionally. All through Scripture, it takes courage to find the power and victory of God. It took courage for Moses to face down Pharaoh and march across the parted Red Sea. It took courage for Joshua and his people to step into the flooded Jordan River and march around the fortified city of Jericho.
It took courage for David to face Saul, for Daniel to face his lions, for Peter, James and John to leave their boats to fish for men. It took courage for Paul and Barnabas to leave Israel with the gospel for the Gentile world. It took courage for John to worship Jesus on the prison island of Patmos.
Where do you need courage today? Are you fighting an enemy more powerful than you? Facing a future you cannot see? Struggling with temptation you cannot seem to defeat? Carrying grief or guilt which is too heavy for your heart? Called by God to serve him at personal sacrifice?
What is his next step for your walk with him? If it didn’t require courage, you’d already have taken it. How do we find courage to follow God? One of the most fascinating stories in Scripture will give us the answers we need.
Seek God’s help
As our text begins, we find the Midianites at war with the children of Israel.
Midian was a son of Abraham (Genesis. 25:2). His descendants had good relations with the Hebrews in the time of Moses but soon became Israel’s fierce enemies. They were a nomadic people, camping to the southeast of Israel in the region of the Sinai Peninsula today and roaming far and wide.
These desert nomads had large herds of camels (Isaiah 60:6), the battle tanks of the day. With their help, the Midianite soldiers were far faster than the farmers who made up the footsoldiers of the Hebrew army.
Judges 6 describes their devastation: “They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it” (vs. 4-5).
When they exhausted the resources of one area they moved on to another. They conquered, enslaved and killed the people they met along the way. They were human locusts, taking what they wanted wherever they went. Now they threaten the very existence of the Hebrew people.
For seven years they have oppressed the Jewish nation (Judges 6:1). God has raised up Gideon as his “judge” and deliverer; his name means “one who cuts down the enemy.” But only 32,000 farmers and other civilians will help him fulfill his name, going to battle against 135,000 battle-hardened warriors in the Midianite army (Judges 8:10).
Who or what are the Midianites in your life today? In what way are you being oppressed or discouraged? Identify the enemy for which you need God’s help and guidance this morning. Repent of the self-reliance which is so endemic to our culture. Admit that you need your Father’s strength and direction. And know that nothing is too great or too small for his help.
Pursue his glory
Now we come to the crucial battle. It begins in the strangest way imaginable: “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 deacons, “We have too much money for our ministries 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 “trembling” in Hebrew. Picture a vast army filling an entire valley, its tanks as numerous as 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” (Judges 6:16). In question was whether his people would learn something significant from the victory they were about to gain. Whether they would depend on themselves or learn to trust in the one true Lord. 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.
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 (v. 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 attack. This second reduction left Gideon with 300 soldiers, who picked up the provisions and trumpets of the others (v. 8).
Our tour groups stood at this very spot last month. 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. But this is what it would take for God to be glorified by Gideon’s army.
Now God wants you to do what Gideon did at your own spring of Harod. Name your Midianites, your problem or challenge or burden or decision. Ask this question: what would most glorify God in this? How could you most honor him? What would bring the most people to faith in him? What would most show his power and grace to the world? Ask him, and he will show you. Then decide to do that, by his help and for his glory. Do it today.
Trust his deliverance
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” (v. 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 300 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, an instrument sounded to signal soldiers into battle or retreat. Not many were used for an army, as the person playing the shofar could not defend himself at the same time and was obviously easy for the enemy to identify. 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.
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 give his problem to God, seek his glory, and trust his power. And God was glorified by one of the most stunning, unlikely victories in military history.
On this Memorial Day weekend we stop to give thanks for the courage of more than a million men and women who died while serving our nation in a time of war. Every one of them could have refused the call to defend our freedom and serve our country. Every one of them answered it with courage which calls us to join their commitment today.What army has you outnumbered this morning? A torch and trumpet in the hand of a soldier of God will defeat a mighty army every time. God plus one is a majority. Just be sure you’re the one.