Judges 8 – Pursuing After Midian
A. Gideon battles Midianite kings and contentious Israelites.
1. (1-3) Ephraim’s complaint and Gideon’s answer.
Now the men of Ephraim said to him, “Why have you done this to us by not calling us when you went to fight with the Midianites?” And they reprimanded him sharply. So he said to them, “What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? God has delivered into your hands the princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb. And what was I able to do in comparison with you?” Then their anger toward him subsided when he said that.
a. And they reprimanded him sharply: The men of Ephraim joined in the fight against Midian when Gideon called out to them (Judges 7:24-25). Yet they were upset that Gideon did not call them before the battle started. Gideon’s initial call for help went out to the tribes of Manasseh (his own tribe), Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali (Judges 6:35).
i. The men of Ephraim seem to have cared more about recognition than the overall good of Israel. Instead of being jealous about the recognition that others received, they should have been happy that God’s people were rescued and that had some part in the victory. Jealousy often hinders the work of God.
b. What have I done now in comparison with you: Gideon did not challenge their pride; instead he soothed their pride by complimenting them and giving them the recognition they seemed to crave. Most importantly, he challenged them to get involved in the work of God that was at hand. His reply was a wise way to deal with contention when there is work for the LORD to be done.
i. Yet, Gideon seems to have had a continuing controversy with the men of Ephraim. His later making of an ephod (Judges 8:27) was a disservice to Israel and may have been prompted by a competitive attitude towards Ephraim.
2. (4-9) The sins of Succoth and Penuel.
When Gideon came to the Jordan, he and the three hundred men who were with him crossed over, exhausted but still in pursuit. Then he said to the men of Succoth, “Please give loaves of bread to the people who follow me, for they are exhausted, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, kings of Midian.” And the leaders of Succoth said, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” So Gideon said, “For this cause, when the LORD has delivered Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, then I will tear your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers!” Then he went up from there to Penuel and spoke to them in the same way. And the men of Penuel answered him as the men of Succoth had answered. So he also spoke to the men of Penuel, saying, “When I come back in peace, I will tear down this tower!”
a. He and the three hundred men who were with him crossed over, exhausted but still in pursuit: We can imagine how tired they were. They fought hard and pursued the enemy over a long distance.
i. “If you, dear brethren and sisters, will give yourselves wholly to God’s work, although you will never get tired of it, you will often get tired in it. If a man has never tired himself with working for God, I should think he never has done any work that was worth doing.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Let us also serve the Lord when every movement is painful, when even to think is wearisome. These men were faint. You know what it is for a soldier to be faint; it is no nonsense, no pretense, it is real fainting. Yet to go running on when you are ready to faint, to keep right on when you are ready to drop, this is very trying work; yet let us do it, brethren, by God’s grace. Some people only pray when they feel like praying; but we need most to pray when we feel that we cannot pray. If we were only to preach, – some of us, – when we felt like preaching, we should not often preach.” (Spurgeon)
b. Please give loaves of bread to the people who follow me: Through Gideon, the call came to the people of the city of Succoth to support those who fought the battle. They were not asked to engage in the actual battle, but simply to support those on the front lines.
c. Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army: Instead of help, the people of Succoth and Penuel had an excuse. They didn’t want to support Israel in the fight against Midian until the battle was already won.
i. We can suppose that this was discouraging for Gideon and those fighting the battle. They didn’t ask the people of Succoth and Penuel to fight on the front lines, only to support those who did. Yet they were unwilling and made excuses. When we set out to do the LORD’s work, often the resistance we face is from our friends. We can’t allow this to hinder or discourage our work.
d. When the LORD has delivered…When I come back in peace, I will tear down this tower: With or without the help of the people of Succoth and Penuel, Gideon knew he would win the battle (saying when, not if). Yet he vowed to take revenge on these cities that refused to help the army of Israel at this strategic time.
i. “Some have said that this showed resentment and harshness, but when a man is at war, he is not in the habit of sprinkling his adversaries with rosewater. War is in itself so great an evil that there are many other evils necessarily connected with it. It seems to me that if, when Gideon was trying to deliver his own countrymen, they scoffed at him, and refused him bread for his soldiers in the day of their hunger, they deserved to be punished with great severity.” (Spurgeon)
3. (10-12) Two Midianite kings and their armies are routed.
Now Zebah and Zalmunna were at Karkor, and their armies with them, about fifteen thousand, all who were left of all the army of the people of the East; for one hundred and twenty thousand men who drew the sword had fallen. Then Gideon went up by the road of those who dwell in tents on the east of Nobah and Jogbehah; and he attacked the army while the camp felt secure. When Zebah and Zalmunna fled, he pursued them; and he took the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and routed the whole army.
a. He attacked the army while the camp felt secure: Gideon, continuing in the boldness of the LORD, led a courageous surprise attack. This wasn’t the same as 300 attacking the vast army described in Judges 7:12, but it was still a small army against a much larger army.
i. We can suppose that Gideon was bold enough to do this because he saw God do great things in similar circumstances before. The previous work of God encouraged him to trust God for great things in the present.
b. He pursued them… and routed the whole army: This shows the persistence of Gideon. He fought until the battle was won, and he went after the leaders of the opposition.
4. (13-17) Gideon repays Succoth and Penuel.
Then Gideon the son of Joash returned from battle, from the Ascent of Heres. And he caught a young man of the men of Succoth and interrogated him; and he wrote down for him the leaders of Succoth and its elders, seventy-seven men. Then he came to the men of Succoth and said, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you ridiculed me, saying, ‘Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your weary men?’” And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth. Then he tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city.
a. He came to the men of Succoth and said: The men of this city didn’t want to help Gideon or his army before victory was assured. They refused to help Gideon by faith, and so Gideon would punish them as he had promised.
b. He took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth: Apparently Gideon publicly whipped the leaders of the city of Succoth with thorns and briers as a method of public rebuke.
c. He tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city: The text does not make it clear, but we suppose there was a justification for this severe penalty. Perhaps the people of Penuel were significant supporters of the Midianites and traitors against Israel.
5. (18-21) Gideon repays the two Midianite kings.
And he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “What kind of men were they whom you killed at Tabor?” So they answered, “As you are, so were they; each one resembled the son of a king.” Then he said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the LORD lives, if you had let them live, I would not kill you.” And he said to Jether his firstborn, “Rise, kill them!” But the youth would not draw his sword; for he was afraid, because he was still a youth. So Zebah and Zalmunna said, “Rise yourself, and kill us; for as a man is, so is his strength.” So Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and took the crescent ornaments that were on their camels’ necks.
a. They were my brothers, the sons of my mother: Apparently these two Midianite kings were responsible for the death of Gideon’s brothers. Gideon wanted this known and confessed before he executed these kings.
b. Rise yourself, and kill us: Zebah and Zalmunna knew they deserved death and even encouraged their executioner.
B. Israel under Gideon as a judge.
1. (22-23) Gideon refuses to be made king.
Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.” But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD shall rule over you.”
a. Rule over us: The desire for a human king over Israel started early in the nation’s history. Hundreds of years later (in the days of Samuel the prophet and judge), God gave Israel the king they asked for.
i. “They found relief in the judges who were raised up of God, and began to hanker after some ruler, visible, and of their own number. They thought that, by securing this, they would preserve themselves from the recurrence of these troubles.” (Morgan)
b. I will not rule over you: This was a good response from Gideon. He understood that it was not his place to take the throne over Israel, and that the LORD God was king over Israel.
i. “That is the true attitude of all those whom God raised up to lead and deliver His people. Their leadership must ever stop short of sovereignty. Their business is never that of superseding the Divine rule; but of interpreting it, and of leading the people to recognition of it, and submission to it. This is true, not only of kings, but also of priests, prophets, and preachers.” (Morgan)
ii. Gideon definitely gave the right answer when he said he didn’t want to be a king; yet in the rest of the chapter he acted like one. His words were humble, but his actions were not. It is easier to talk about humility and service to God than it is to actually live it.
2. (24-26) Gideon gathers a fortune.
Then Gideon said to them, “I would like to make a request of you, that each of you would give me the earrings from his plunder.” For they had gold earrings, because they were Ishmaelites. So they answered, “We will gladly give them.” And they spread out a garment, and each man threw into it the earrings from his plunder. Now the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments, pendants, and purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the chains that were around their camels’ necks.
a. That each of you would give me the earrings from his plunder: This didn’t seem like much to ask for, yet when it was added up, it came to more than 50 pounds (22 kilograms) of gold. This was quite a fortune.
b. We will gladly give them: The people were happy to give this, and it is hard to say that Gideon did not deserve this huge fortune. At the same time it was inappropriate, because it lifted him far above the level of the people he would lead, and it was at their expense.
i. A general rule of thumb is that Christian leaders who make their living from the gifts of God’s people should live at the level of their own people – not below or above.
3. (27) Gideon, using the riches he received, assumes an inappropriate role of religious leadership and leads Israel into idolatry.
Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house.
a. Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city: An ephod is a shirt-like garment worn by the priests of Israel (Exodus 28). This was obviously wrong, and it is not immediately apparent why Gideon did this. It is possible he did this to work against the prestige and influence of the tribe of Ephraim. At this time the tabernacle – the center of worship for Israel – was at Shiloh, in the territory of Ephraim. Gideon perhaps set up this rival place of worship to compete against the tribe that troubled him in the battle against Midian.
i. “While this was probably done out of a sense of the religious failure of the people, the effect produced was evil and resulted in deterioration of the character of Gideon himself.” (Morgan)
ii. “He did not set up an idol, but he made an ephod, an imitation of that wonderful vestment worn by the high priest. Perhaps he made it of solid gold, not to be worn, but to he looked at, simply to remind the people of the worship of God, and not to be itself worshipped. But ah, dear friends, you see here that, if we go half an inch beyond what God’s Word warrants we always get into mischief!” (Spurgeon)
b. And all Israel played the harlot with it there: The people of Israel enjoyed this idolatrous worship. The beautiful and expensive ephod became a snare to Gideon, his family, and all Israel.
i. Artistic beauty has a way of impressing us and giving a sense of awe, but it is not necessarily a godly impression or awe. Many times, it can distract our focus from the LORD. In contrast to this ephod, God commanded that His altars be made of unfinished stone (Exodus 20:25), so that no one’s attention was focused on the beauty of the stone carver’s work.
ii. Gideon was remarkably obedient and filled with faith in the extreme moment of battle. The routine of daily living seems to have been a greater test of his character. This is true for many, and the challenges of daily living are more difficult than those of the extreme moment.
iii. “Perhaps it is easier to honour God in some courageous action in the limelight of a time of national emergency than it is to honour Him consistently in the ordinary, everyday life, which requires a different kind of courage.” (Cundall)
4. (28-30) Gideon assumes a kingly harem.
Thus Midian was subdued before the children of Israel, so that they lifted their heads no more. And the country was quiet for forty years in the days of Gideon. Then Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and dwelt in his own house. Gideon had seventy sons who were his own offspring, for he had many wives.
a. Thus Midian was subdued: Regarding the security of the nation, Gideon’s rule as a judge over Israel was a success. Yet in many ways he was a spiritual failure.
b. For he had many wives: A harem was not only a reflection of a man’s inability to control his sexual lust, it was also a way for him to proudly express his wealth, by saying “Look at all the wives and children I can support.”
i. The Old Testament never directly condemns polygamy (though the New Testament does in Matthew 19:4-6 and 1 Timothy 3:2). Yet the Old Testament shows the bitter fruit of polygamy. The stories of polygamous families in the Old Testament (such as with Jacob or David) are the stories of conflict and crisis.
5. (31-32) Gideon assumes – or hopes for – a hereditary rule.
And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, whose name he called Abimelech. Now Gideon the son of Joash died at a good old age, and was buried in the tomb of Joash his father, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
a. Whose name he called Abimelech: The name Abimelech means, “My father, a king.” It is the kind of name that a king himself would bear. It seems that Gideon intended that his son would become the leader of Israel after Gideon himself was gone.
b. Gideon the son of Joash died at a good old age: Through his career, we see Gideon as a man who slipped from great heights of faith to a place of outright apostasy and rebellion against God. We could say that Gideon handled adversity better than success. Success, riches, and prominence brought him down.
i. It isn’t enough for us to begin well with God. We must continue on throughout our whole Christian life. Gideon, in his later years, had to look back to see anything done for God. All those works were in the past.
6. (33-35) After Gideon, Israel rebels and makes a covenant with Baal.
So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god. Thus the children of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; nor did they show kindness to the house of Jerubbaal (Gideon) in accordance with the good he had done for Israel.
a. As soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals: In a sense, Israel served the memory of Gideon well, especially the Gideon of his later years. By serving Baal, Israel said, “What really matters is money and success,” and in this they followed the example of Gideon in his later years.
b. And made Baal-Berith their god: The name Baal-Berith means “Baal of the Covenant.” The Israelites sadly regarded Baal as their covenant god.
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