Images of the Savior (12 – Gideon’s Victory over Midian)
If the call of Gideon was an affair attended with many shadowy signs of the final exile of the people of Israel and the gospel era which should afterward ensue, as we discovered last time, then it may be reasonable to suppose that the actual victory which Gideon then wrought against Israel’s oppressors should also be full of instructive gospel types. This is a supposition which we will not at all be disappointed in, as we look into the following account; for there, we will find marvelous dreams, suggestive names, amazing events, strange coincidences – but chiefly, one of the most enigmatical victories in the whole history of Israel, which displays God’s unique power to save in an extraordinary and evocative way, and points clearly ahead to that greatest victory of all the ages, when God reached down from heaven with an outstretched arm and saved his people from all their oppressors, once and for all. Let us now recount a few respects in which these assertions are certainly true.
First of all, it is a very strange manner in which God proceeds, after he has made known his intention to save his weak, outnumbered, and oppressed people through one lowly and unexpected man – for when all human wisdom would say that it was a time to build up armies and gather together warriors, the divine wisdom proceeds differently, and begins to cast away the few men still left, to make the plight of the people more hopeless than ever before. Thus, what began as a small and pitiful army of 32,000, against what must have been at least 135,000 seasoned soldiers (see Judges 8:10), God was pleased to diminish, first sending away the fearful, some 22,000, and then whittling the remaining 10,000 down to 300, in the matter of the drinking (Judges 7:1-8).
Now, whether one understands the 300 who lapped as a dog to be fearful and weak, as Theodoret did; or to be brave and watchful, as Gregory Nazianzen did, with whom I am inclined to agree, the basic point remains the same: what was already a weak, struggling people, by divine decree became weaker and smaller yet, until there was but a tiny remnant. This was to underscore the truth that, when God finally saved his people by little Gideon, the one man whom he had chosen for this act, it would be his power and glory alone that the whole world would see; for what he would accomplish would be foolish and impossible to human expectations. So too, when God had revealed his will to save the world by the one Man he had chosen, Jesus Christ the righteous, he first made the small nation of Israel smaller and smaller, until there was left only a tiny remnant, in order to display his power and wisdom fully before all, through the victory of that one man (see Rom. 11; 1 Cor. 1:18-25).
Thus was the stage set for the miraculous victory of Gideon; but in the way in which the whole affair played out, there would be yet more suggestive and typological circumstances marking him as a type of the Savior. The first of these typological events was the dream which God ordered for Gideon to overhear, knowing him still to be a weak and timid man (Judges 7:9-15). When Gideon, at the invitation of the Lord, went with his servant to the camp of Midian, he heard one of the soldiers tell of a strange dream, in which a loaf of barley bread came tumbling into their camp and utterly overturned the chief tent in the midst of it. The dream in itself is remarkable enough, but what is more remarkable yet is the response of the fellow-Midianite. No sooner had he heard it, than he said, “This loaf is the Sword of Gideon; Yahweh has given our camp into his hand”. Now, barley was the lowest quality grain available at that time, and it was only the poorest of people that were forced to eat of it; and so low a state was Israel reduced to by the hordes of Midian that they threshed their precious wheat in the winepress, and lived in the meanwhile on crusts of barley! So then, it is strange enough that the camp of Midian should be overturned by something as prosaic and unexpected as common bread – but stranger yet that it should be the worst kind of bread that should do so wonderful a deed!
But even stranger than the fact that it was a loaf of bread, and coarse, cheap stuff at that, which should smite the death-blow to Midian, was the fact that this soldier, to whom divine wisdom had directed Gideon’s ear, should immediately perceive that a man was intended thereby. Who would ever think that a man would be bread? Or even thinking so, who would think him the lowliest and humblest of breads? Or even thinking thus far, who should then be so wild as to think this poor character who has become something so weak and common as inferior peasants’ bread should then go on to do something very unbreadlike, and singlehandedly overthrow an army of well over 100,000 strong warriors?
To him who has never heard the divine wisdom, this tale is mystifying and meaningless; but to the Christian, who has heard the gospel of God’s grace, the point is at once clear. Who, indeed, has ever been true Bread but he who came down from heaven for the life of his people (see John 6:32-35, 48-58? And he came down, stooping ever so profoundly from heaven’s highest joys, not just to become a prestigious, rich, and respected man, but to be the poorest and lowliest of men, which only beggars and sinners would ever eat of by faith. Thus in the dream there was only contemptible barley bread, no food for the rich and proud, but only for desperate beggars. And while the wisest of earthly men think it odd that a bit of bread should strike down an army, the Christian looks to Jesus, come down as the Bread of Heaven, whose body would be broken for the life of his people, and think it not strange at all that this Bread should strike down the enemy in terror; for they see him in terrible glory, his arm bared for the slaughter, ready to come riding on a mighty white horse, with a sword in his mouth to destroy the devil and all his hosts (Rev. 19:11-21). They who have seen the admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Christ will think the dream not a bit far-fetched. For they have seen some stoop much lower than a loaf of barley bread, and defeat an enemy much more powerful than an army of a mere 100,000 men.
So then, this wonderful dream was certainly a sign that Gideon, God’s chosen warrior, would here be acting as a type of the Christ to come; and this truth made Gideon’s faltering heart firm in faith, and strengthened his hand to the task set before him. And what a task it was! If the dream looked ahead to gospel truths, then the event itself did so much more clearly yet.
This is what happened: Gideon and his three hundred took clay pots in one hand, and hid blazing torches inside them; then, they took trumpets with the other hand. When Gideon had broken his pot, so that the light blazed out, at the same time sounding upon his trumpet, the three hundred all did the same. Then, they shouted out, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”, and the Lord immediately set such confusion in the hearts of the enemy that they turned and smote each other (Judges 7:16-23). In this way, a mighty victory was won without a sword at all, and this swordless victory became the great monument to the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.
In the same way, when the Christ came to take up arms for his people, it was without a sword at all – in fact, he ordered his disciples to put away their swords (Mat. 26:52-54). Then, he went down to the battle of the ages unarmed, and at once broke that vessel he had taken to save the people, that vessel made from the dust of the ground, in which he had hid infinite divine glory in a frail human body. When he broke that vessel which shielded the true Light of the world from the eyes of men who knew him not (see John 9), then he called out the victory cry, “It is finished!” – and at once there blazed forth from that broken jar of clay such a light as has put all his enemies to confusion and shame for some two thousand years! Still blazes the gospel light from the tree where the body of our Savior was crushed, and the enemies of the Lord cannot look at it yet without being filled with terror and confusion, and rushing headlong to their own doom. This victory that our Savior won without a weapon – the cross on which his body was broken, and which never pierced the body of a single enemy – became the great sword by which Satan was utterly defeated. How well does this paradoxical victory of Gideon the shadow correspond to the victory-through-death of Christ the Savior!
But you will notice that, when Gideon had first sounded the trumpet, then the three hundred likewise sounded at once. This teaches us that, when Jesus had first sounded the ringing victory peal of the gospel from the cross, then his disciples would take up the theme and sound the same cry throughout the world. Only note how they would do it: even as the Savior. When they did not love their own lives even unto death, and gave up their bodies to the tormentors, suffering evil for righteousness’ sake gladly on account of him who suffered for them, then the gospel light of Christ formed within them set the world ablaze with truth and grace. And to what end did all this eventuate? Only one thing: the glory of God through the gospel. This weakness and foolishness soon proved to be stronger and wiser than the greatest of men. These saints who suffered and did not resist had soon overcome the world of rapacious foes who set upon them to devour their flesh. And in this was the glory of God made manifest. Thus the apostle Paul says of the gospel, and of the weakness of his flesh, “But we have this treasure in clay vessels, that the superabundance of the power might be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Just as Gideon won the victory through the unlikely means of breaking a clay vessel so that the glory of God might be front and center, so the evangelists turned the world upside down in frail vessels of flesh, so that, when they were beaten and killed and the Treasure of the Gospel blazed forth from their broken bodies, the glory might be God’s alone.
Now, as time is short, we will simply enumerate several other typological features of this account, and be done. First, the enemies Gideon kills are Oreb and Zeeb, which mean Raven and Wolf (Judges 7:24-25). So Christ destroyed the Enemy of the people who is both unclean and vile, as a raven; and cruel and ravening, as a wolf. And they were killed the one at a rock and the other at a winepress, signifying how Satan would be destroyed by Christ the Rock, who would come again to crush him in the winepress of his wrath (see Rev. 14:17-20).
Second, when Gideon begins to pursue his victory to completion, and the tribe of Ephraim, who helped destroy Oreb and Zeeb, are incensed that they were not invited to the first affair with the jars and torches, Gideon placates them with this observation: “The gleaning of Ephraim is better than the vintage of Abiezer”. Gideon, of course, was an Abiezrite, and so he is telling them, “Even though it was I who struck the first blow, and took the first harvest of grapes, yet when you came in afterwards to glean, you found a better harvest in your gleaning than I had taken in the first vintage!” – meaning, of course, that the victory over Oreb and Zeeb, which Ephraim had wrought, was greater than the first stroke against Midian, which Gideon and the three hundred had wrought (Judges 8:1-3). This teaches us that the later generations of the Church, who continued the spiritual battles of the first apostles, lack nothing in comparison to the first disciples. For although these first saw Christ in the flesh, and wrought those first mighty strokes by which the darkness of the world would soon fall, yet those who came later were also essential to final victory, in God’s plan, and are no less worthy of the crown of righteousness than the former. Thus, too, Christ told his disciples, “all the works I do, you shall do, and even greater works yet” (John 14:12-14).
Third, when Gideon continues the campaign, pursuing Zebah and Zalmunah and the final 15,000 soldiers of Midian left alive, he seeks bread for his army from the cities of Succoth and Penuel; and when he is denied, because of the elders’ fear that he will not be victorious against their final two foes, he threatens to come again and chastise them with the thorns of the wilderness, and to tear down their tower. And this he does, after his victory is complete (Judges 8:4-17). We may learn from this that, when we do so little as to give bread and water to the followers of Christ, we are doing it unto him (see Mat. 10:40-42; 25:34-40), and we will not lose our reward, but will be accounted among the ranks of true believers. But when we are afraid and ashamed to help other Christians, because we do not believe that Christ will triumph by the gospel, then when he comes, he will deny us before his Father in heaven. On that day, he will put those who denied him to eternal torments, and will utterly raze that strong tower that they trusted in while they were here on this earth.
Fourth, just as Zebah and Zalmunah killed all Gideon’s brothers, so the enemies of the gospel have shed the blood of many martyrs, the younger brothers of Jesus; but when he returns, he will require their own blood of them for it (Judges 8:18-21).
Finally, we must not fail to observe the last tragic chapter in this wonderful saga, for by it we are reminded once again of that great truth, that all these things were mere signs and types of the true Savior and the true victory he would win for his people. We have mentioned this truth numerous times, that even as the clarity of the Christological typology increased in the lives of the judges, so too did their weakness and inadequacy, the time of the Judges functioning something like the giving of a perfect Law; even as it emphasized the desperate need for a Savior, it held forth to the spiritual eyes of the people just who this Savior should be. So too, even as the weakness of the judges proved the need for Christ, so the splendor of the gospel-images which adorned their lives displayed much more of who the Christ should be.
But let us get to the fact of the matter; and the sad truth is this: even when Gideon had won such a victory, and been strengthened from his innate timidity by faith in the promises of God, and even when he had then displayed a commendable humility, refusing to be called king, yet then he erred greatly, fashioning an ephod and functioning as a priest in the stead of Aaron’s seed, whom God had chosen. This sin plunged the nation into idolatry yet again, and signaled the downfall of Gideon’s own house (Judges 8:22-28). Surely Gideon knew that, as a type, he was not the Christ indeed, but only pointed to him! Thus, when he would not be called King, but was content as a mere judge, he made it clear that the true King which he foreshadowed had yet to arise. Why then did he not understand that the true and only High Priest who would be ordained after a different order than Aaron’s (see Psalm 110) had also to arise? But the weakness and sin of the judge, occasioning so sorry an outcome, taught the people to yearn all the more fervently for him who had been signified so brilliantly in the life and victory of Gideon.
And so, by God’s grace, Gideon lived long and died in peace (Judges 8:29-35), the great error of his old age notwithstanding. In his time Israel had peace for forty years, as the years of her sojourn in the wilderness, before the sabbath rest had been won (see Hebrews 4:6-10). Ah, but when would come a better Savior, who would win a better victory, and usher in a better Sabbath rest, which would nevermore be marred by sin or failure? Friends, what Israel longed for then, we have been granted today, God being pleased that they should not have been perfected without us (Hebrews 11:39-40). How can we not praise his glorious Name and amazing grace?