Summary: Gideon’s asking for a sign has nothing to do with determining God’s will—God already clearly told Gideon what to do. Gideon’s fleece shows his doubt and fear and lack of trust. Gideon didn’t know his own strength.
“Putting out a Fleece” (Gideon)
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
“Actions have consequences.” This could be the motto of our times, and it certainly would apply to the period of the Judges. In both cases we see people living lawlessly, doing whatever they like. The judges were appointed to provide a semblance of order, restraint and accountability. They brought Israel back into obedience and fellowship with God after periods of rebellion.
After Deborah and Barak delivered Israel from the oppression of Sisera and his Canaanite coalition (chapters 4-5), the Jewish nation enjoyed 40 years of peace. During this time they again were lulled into complacency and lured towards idolatry. They abused their standing as a holy nation by turning from God to Baal worship. They ignored their teachings and obligations. The book of Proverbs warns us that “Godliness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach (disgrace) to any people” (14:34). This time the consequences turned out to be severe oppression from the Midianites and Amalekites.
In chapter 6, verses 1-5, the enemy strategy was not to conquer and occupy Jewish territory but to employ a “scorched earth policy”. They plundered the Israeli harvest and livestock, leaving the land and people desolate. Reduced to starvation, God’s people came to their senses and cried out to Him for help, vs 6. Deliverance didn’t come immediately. In verses 7-10 God sends a stern message to His people through an unnamed prophet. The prophet reminds the people of how the Lord brought them out of Egypt, and stresses that repentance must precede restoration. Correction isn’t a pleasant task, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end. The reason God first sent a prophet is that there is no mention of the Jews repenting. God’s prophet indicts them for breaking the divine covenant.
In verse 11 the “Angel of the Lord” appears to Gideon. Many scholars agree that this is a theophany, a physical appearance of the Lord God. This heavenly being comes to Gideon while he is steathfully threshing wheat in a wine press. Under normal conditions his action would be considered absurd. In order to separate wheat from the chaff, farmers would select an open, elevated location where the grain could be pitched up so that the wind could blow away the useless chaff. We find Gideon cowering, maintaining a low profile, laboring in a secluded place, due to the threat of invasion. While protecting his crop, Gideon learns that he will lead Israel to defeat their enemies.
Gideon appears cynical, even rude before the Angel of the Lord, revealing his ignorance. He complains and questions God in vs. 13: “Where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about?” Why is God letting His people suffer? Israel had reverted to idolatry, and were subsequently attacked by enemies—what should they expect? When we run after the same goals as non-believers, we shouldn’t be surprised when trials come and God doesn’t intervene or answer our prayers as we might expect. Isaiah declares, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you” (59:1-2). Charles Spurgeon remarks that, “God does not permit His children to sin successfully”. He is not a “permissive parent”. With a tremendous lack of insight, Gideon blames God for the consequences of Israel’s sin. God responds to Gideon’s protest by announcing that (in spite of what He has to work with) His intention is to make Gideon a “mighty warrior”. It’s evident that God did not select a born leader. Gideon appears far from heroic, and readily admits his lack of qualifications. He is a last-born, from an insignificant family and tribe. He’s not acting very courageous, but God will prepare him to gradually grow into his valiant role. The angel tells Gideon in vs 14, “go with the strength you have.” Gideon didn’t know his own strength!
Rather than rest in God’s reassurance, Gideon resists God’s call by asking for a sign, some tangible evidence, verses 17-21. When fire consumes the offering, Gideon finally realizes that he is talking to a heavenly being, and he thinks he’s going to die, vss 22-23. It was a popular misconception that if one saw an angel it meant they would die; Gideon thought he was being visited by the “angel of death”. He is assured otherwise, and builds an altar to the Lord, which he calls “The Lord is Peace”, vs 24. As the inscription indicates, Gideon’s primary concern was to live in peace.
To prepare Gideon to lead Israel, he is directed to destroy a nearby pagan altar, vss 25-32. If God is to be Israel’s Savior, Baal must go. Gideon’s own family worshiped the deities of Canaan. Before he can be used by God, Gideon needs to destroy the idolatry in his own household. Gideon and his servants work through the night, under the cover of darkness, tearing down the altar to Baal and Asherah. Gideon’s name means “hewer” or “hacker”, one who cuts down—an appropriate name for him. The idol worshippers didn’t neglect their morning devotions, and they soon discover the damage. It doesn’t take them long to identify the culprit, and Gideon hides behind his father Joash’s protection. Joash, the custodian of the altar, tells his angry neighbors that if Baal is so powerful he should have been able to defend himself! The town gives Gideon the nickname Jerubbaal, meaning, “let Baal plead his case”, a reminder of God’s power and Baal’s weakness. Gideon, who tested God, cleaned up his neighborhood and passed God’s test.