Preached by Pastor Benjamin Vrbicek
Last week, Jason began the portion of the book of Judges that covers the life of Gideon, which we’ll compete this morning. And when he mentioned that my sermon passage this morning is huge, he wasn’t kidding. It’s all of chapter 7-10:5. In total, it’s over 3,600 words—which might not mean much to you, but just the words in the scripture passage is the length of my normal sermon. And so, I have a tall order this morning. But only for length, also for the gravity of it all.
We can speak so casually of a train wreck, but think about what a train wreck is. It’s a tragedy, a tragedy where many are injured and perhaps many are killed.
Here in our passage this morning, Gideon—one of the greatest leaders in Israel; perhaps the judge who has the most name brand recognition because of his role a miraculous deliverance—his life, Gideon’s life, ends in a train wreck. And subsequently, by Chapter 9, Israel is not fighting Canaanites or Midianites, or some other foreign –ties, but Israel is fighting Israelites.
But how they got there, and why they got there, is what my sermon is about.
Last week on Twitter, I saw a hilarious video making its rounds on around the internet. It was of young boy about 4 years old. Maybe you saw it somewhere too.
It’s only a few seconds long, but this kid runs up to a basketball goal, one of those indoor-living-room type of hoops that’s like 4 feet tall, and this boy bounces off a trampoline, dunks the basketball, takes two steps towards the camera and begins to pound his chest over the majesty he just displayed.
Well, as he dunked the ball, he also toppled over the hoop, and just as he started to pound his chest the whole thing falls on his head and knocks him over. It was made of plastic and I’m sure he’s fine, but in that short video, the world saw—as the saying goes—prides cometh before the fall.
And in that video, it’s funny and the consequences are minimal. However, that’s not always the case. That’s not often the case. Often it’s not funny and the consequences are not minimal.
For example, recently a famous pastor in Florida resigned because of marital infidelity. But in that sentence we could remove the word “recently” and remove the geography of “Florida,” and just say generically that somewhere someone in a position of Christian leadership, failed to finish strong.
When we make the statement generic—somewhere, someone didn’t finish strong—the we could apply it to any week in the last 20 years or in the next 20 years. And it could be said of Gideon 3,500 years ago. And apart from the grace of God, it could be said of us.
When there is a failure to finish strong, I don’t know all of the reasons that go into it. Likely, there is situational specificity that makes every situation unique. And yet, there are commonalities, I assume. There are commonalities among those that don’t finish strong. What are they? Perhaps one of them shows up in Judges 7-10. Perhaps one of the commonalities of not finishing the Christian life strong is this: that after great victory and success—after running right—then comes pride and isolation.
Pride comes in the sense that an individual begins to take credit for the great victory that was wrought. And isolation comes in the sense, that slowly and eventually people just stop asking those in leadership the hard questions (or those in leadership remove from themselves those that ask the hard questions).
And when this type of pride and isolation exists, tragic things are about to take place—no matter how great the success or victory of yesteryear.
Therefore, this passage isn’t merely a story about Gideon and Israel, nor only about some pastor in Florida. It’s about you. And it’s about me. And this church.
In a pinch, and when the odds are against us, and when we are penniless or deathly sick, or desperate for salvation—in the moments when we are be reminded of our frailty, our utter dependence upon God—in these moments, we tend to run well. But after a great deliverance, sadly, we forget what made us run well. We become self-reliant. We think we are the equal of our work—the work that God did through us. That’s what happened to Gideon, and it’s what can happen to us. [FCF] But I haven’t shown that yet, but it’s what I hope to do.
We like to start our sermons with a road map. The course we are going to run this morning, as we look at this passage, has two legs in it. First, we’ll talk about running right, which is the way Gideon starts. He does start well. And then we’ll talk about finishing wrong, which is the way Gideon finishes.
1. Running Right
Let’s start with talking about running right by dipping into one verse from last week. If you remember from last week, a group of people called Midianites were oppressing Israelites. It was so bad that God’s people abandoned normal life and began living in caves.
And God raised up a deliver named Gideon, but when we meet him, he doesn’t look much like a deliver. And Gideon knows this too. Let me read Judges 6:15-16a,
15 And [Gideon] said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” 16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you…”
Gideon starts with an acute awareness of his own weakness. He’s the runt of the litter in his family, which is a family in a weak clan in a weak tribe.
This his how you run well, people. You run the race with an acute awareness of you dependence upon God. Gideon’s weakness highlights God’s strength. Look at 7:2, 7.
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.’…
So not only is Gideon not weak enough, he has too many people with him. So the troops get cut down from 32,000 to 10,000 when 22,000 leave. But that’s still too many.
7 And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the 300 men… I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.”
I won’t go into the whole story. Many of you know it. Gideon’s 300, in the end, are out numbered 450:1, but they don’t even fight, really. They win, because in the confusion of the battle, God causes the Midianites to turn on themselves and they fight each other.
And the whole thing, the whole deliverance, is designed by God to highlight his strength. The whole thing is designed by God to undercut boasting in ourselves and cause us to boast in God. Those are the two options. We either boast in God, or man, and the “man” most often that we boast in is the one in the mirror. But God has designed salvation so that his people would know that salvation is from God. This is not a small theme in Scripture. It is a major theme.
God is setting salvation up in such a crazy way that, in the end, only he can be seen as responsible. If a quadriplegic climbed Mt. Everest, he could only do so if he was carried. And if he was carried to the top, all 29,035 ft, and he planted a flag on the top, it would be not a monument to himself, but the one that carried him. This is Gideon. This is Israel. This ought to be us. This is how you run right.
2. Finishing Wrong
Sadly, it’s not where Gideon finishes. He finishes wrong. Let’s look at this second leg of the race on finishing wrong.
In this leg of the race there are three turns: Chapter 8, Chapter 9, and the beginning of Chapter 10. These are important part of the race. As one commentator has pointed out, “Rather than summing up Gideon’s post-victory leadership in a verse, the writer of the book devotes two chapters to it” (Keller, Judges for You, 93). As we read Judges, yes, we are to see the victory. (We could preach whole sermons just from Ch. 7.) But God want’s us also see the train wreck, the train wreck when a leader becomes filled with pride and isolates himself.
Let’s start with Chapter 8. I’ll just give you the highlights, or as it were, the lowlights. I’ll start in vv. 22-23.
22 Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” 23 Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.”
They say, “You’re awesome, Gideon. You saved us.” Is that what happened? Yes and no. Yes, Gideon led, but God was the one who saved.
And when they say, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also,” what are they asking? They are asking for a king, for a dynasty even. In response Gideon says, “No way. No way, guys. It was God, not me. He’s your king.”
That sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds like he’s still running right.
But he’s only saying the right words. His action betray him. Look what happens in this chapter.
In the first part, another tribe called Ephraim got mad because they didn’t get to help in the fight. And then, a few verses later, two other cities get mad at Gideon because they are afraid to help.
To Ephraim, Gideon flatters them. To the two other cities that won’t help, he treats them cruelly. What’s the difference? Ephraim is a huge, influential tribe and Gideon’s is not. So he flatters them. The two cities, they are small, so when they won’t help, he crushes them. This is the leadership of a man ruling on his own whims—like a king.
And later in the chapter, when he does capture the leaders of the enemy, he is ruthless with them and plunders their goods and keeps it for himself (v. 21). Again, a man ruling on his own whims—like a king.
And after the part in v. 23 when he says, “No, I won’t be king,” he says essentially, But I’ll tell you what, why don’t you give me your gold and I’ll make an ephod for you” (cf. vv. 24ff). All of this smacks of the Golden Calf incident in Exodus.
An ephod was a central part of the vestments of the high priest. And Gideon makes it and keeps it in his own town, either for his personal use or so that the people had to come to him for guidance. Or maybe both. Either way, the result of this action is clear. Look what it says in v. 27,
27 And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.
Like the Golden Calf, it turns people from God. And look at vv. 29-31,
29 Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and lived in his own house. 30 Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives. 31 And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech. 32 And Gideon the son of Joash died in a good old age and was buried in the tomb of Joash his father, at Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
Here, Gideon takes “many wives” and a “concubine,” which was sort of a live-in girlfriend that he didn’t love enough to marry. These are king-like things. Not, mind you, kings as they ought to be, but kings like all the nations around them.
And here’s the biggest illustration of what I’m trying to show. Notice the name of the son, Abimelech. If you’re holding a Study Bible, it will tell you that the name Abimelech means “my father is king” (Ab father, melech is king).
“No, guys, don’t make me king,” says Gideon.
“Okay,” they say. “O, I see you have another son. What did you name him?”
“Him? His name is, My Daddy’s King.”
Gideon runs right at the start, but he finishes wrong. He knew his weakness and need for God, but after a great victory that was wrought by God, he becomes full of pride. And he isolates himself self from others—ruling unilaterally. And the consequences were tragic, a train wreck even. We see this in Chapter 9.
In Chapter 9, the next turn in this leg of the race, it only get’s worse—a lot worse. I don’t have the time to cover it this morning, but I’ll tell you what happens. Gideon’s son Abimelech lives in a town called Shechem. Here, among the Shechemites, he campaigns for his hometown to make him king. They say, “This sounds like a great idea.” So they do. Then Abimelech kills all of his brothers, slaughtering them on one rock face.
But one brother named Jotham escapes. Jotham makes a long-winded speech to the people of Abimelech’s hometown. The speech climaxes in a call for judgment of both Abimelech and the people. Then, excepctly, Jotham has to run away for his life.
And then, over three years, Abimelech moves from being a king to a monster, slaughtering at times even innocent woman from his hometown, until eventually, as he is trying to burn down another city center that is loaded with innocent people, a woman drops a rock on his head and kills him. And then it says, they all go home. Let me read 9:55-57
55 And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everyone departed to his home. 56 Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. 57 And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.
This chapter has a lot to say about leaders and how and why they fail, but it says a lot about the people as well and the type of leaders they want. In the ESV SB, the author says this: “The Shechemites and Abimelech deserved each other.” (David M. Howard Jr., ESV SB, Judges 9:22-55).
We must be careful the types of leaders we want. In the New Testament, in 2 Peter 2, there is a scathing critique of what the Bible calls, false teachers, that is, people who turn others way from God while pretending to point them to God.
But also in the New Testament, there are scathing critiques of the people that love false teachers. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:3-4,
3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
The supply (false teachers) and the demand (people with itching ears) are both a problem.
I bring this up because too often we are quick to point the finger at the supplier of evil, rather looking in the mirror and critiquing those that demand it. For example, the millions of dollars spent every year to produce pornography. That’s evil. But the supply would vanish tomorrow if there was no demand, if it wasn’t profitable, if people didn’t inhale it.
Finally, we come to the first few verses in Chapter 10. I’ll just read vv. 1-2,
After Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola the son of Puah, son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, and he lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim. 2 And he judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried at Shamir.
Do you remember Shamgar, poor Shamgar, from Chapter 3? He, like Tola, was one of a few a judges who only have a verse or two about them.
Well, when Shamgar saved Israel, he saved them from the Philistines (3:31); he saved from an external enemy. Note, that with Tola there is no enemy listed. Why? Because the enemy is not external (Philistines, Canaanites, Midianites), it’s internal (Israelites).
The greatest threat to the people of God, in the book of Judges, is not external but internal. The greatest threat to the church is not ISIS. The greatest threat to the church is not Planned Parenthood. It’s not Hollywood. It’s not atheist professors ruining the faith all these sweet, Christian college freshman (who if they fell away so quickly, probably weren’t Christian in the first place). And the greatest enemies are not secular politicians and Supreme Court Judges. It’s not greedy corporations that hurt the poor and destroy the environment.
These things are real and they can be challenges. But are they the greatest enemies of the church? No. The book of Judges, in it’s own narrative form, presses us with the real answer. Who’s the greatest enemy of the church? Judges says, “Look in the mirror.”
When I was thirteen, I ran in a local 5k race. At the start of the race, some kid ran full speed for the first 100 yards. I passed him at 200 yards. And so did everyone else. The next day, however, he got his picture on the front page of the local newspaper. I remember being really mad at that kid.
Anybody can start a marathon. But they don’t give you medals at the starting line. It’s finishing that counts—in a race, and in your life.
I’ve worked in a few different places and always, without exception, the greatest memories of a person, the most visceral memories, are about how people finished. Where they fired for being a doofus? Or did they finish all of their projects and tie up loose ends and go above and beyond to make sure that no one was left hanging. It matters how you finish.
Applications: Don’t finish wrong, but finish strong
How you doing, church? Where are you at in the race? Are you running right? Or are you finishing wrong? Or have not you even started the race; that is, have you not even come to God in the first place? Wherever you are at, here are just three quick applications.
First, on pride. Don’t see yourself as the equal of what God has done, is doing, and will do through you. You are not. God has designed salvation so that his people would know that salvation is from God. This is not a small theme in Scripture. It is a major theme.
I feel this sting. I’ve been asking myself this: how much do I pray before the Sunday sermon, and how much do I pray after? That question stings.
If God, and when God, does something remarkable in your life, or in this church, let’s give him the glory.
Second, on isolation. Do you want your life to count? Do you want to finish strong? Do you want to make a difference? Then don’t get alone. Don’t isolate yourself from others that love you enough to ask you hard questions. Make deep friendships, not simply out of luxury, but necessity. And if you want that (deep friendships), be that for someone else.
Third, wherever you are at in this race, look to Jesus. Are you running right? Good, keep looking to Jesus. Has your life drifted off course? Look to Jesus. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Today. Have you not even started running the Christian life? You, too, look to Jesus. If you do this, and keep doing it, you will finish strong.
This is exactly the point made by the author of Hebrews as he reflects back on several OT believers, including several from Judges. In Hebrews 11:32-12:2 we read,
32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Keep your eyes on Jesus. Don’t take them away and you’ll run right and finish strong.
I’ll close with this. As a pastor, from time to time, I get to hold the hands of those on the edge of death. I get to take their hand and put it into Jesus’s hand. That’s an awesome privilege and responsibility. Sometimes the person is in a hospital, sometimes in a home. Maybe I’ll do this for some of you one day. Maybe you’ll do it for me.
O, what a joy it has been to do this when I know that the person has finished strong. I don’t mean they did lots of great thing and were famous. I mean, that while I hold a hand that is physically wasted away, I can see that their faith is strong. It’s hard, for sure, but it’s a beautiful thing as well. I want that for you. And I want that for me.