by Alexander Whyte (1836-1921)
We are not told to whom we are indebted for the Book of The Judges, but whoever he was, he was a master of the pen, and the story of Gideon is his masterpiece. A powerfully built, middle-aged man of Manasseh is busy beating out a few blasted ears of corn in a secret winepress. He beats the sheaves softly lest the sound of his staff should tell the Midianites where the wheat is. He stops his work to dry his face and to wet his lips, but all the water in the well would not put out the fire that is in his eye, for the fire that is in his eye is his hot heart rising to heaven against the oppressors of his people. The Lord is with thee, the angel of the Lord appeared at that moment and said to Gideon, for thou art a mighty man of valour. Gideon thought that the angel of the Lord was mocking at him in so speaking. The Lord with me! and I have not meal enough to make my children's supper, a mighty man of valour, when I am afraid to thrash out my few stalks of wheat on the thrashing-floor, but must hide myself in this hidden winepress! Call me not a mighty man of valour. Call me a God-forsaken coward! But the angel of the Lord only the more went on, Go in this thy might and thou shalt save Israel.
No sooner had the angel of the Lord taken his departure than Gideon threw down his staff and went into the house where his mother sat mourning day and night for the loss of her sons slain at Tabor, each one resembling the son of a king. And Gideon said to his weeping mother, Awake, my mother, and sing to me the song of Deborah. And while she only the more sat and wept, her son took out and whetted his sword and sharpened his axe. Sing to me, he said, how Deborah and Barak arose and delivered Israel. Sing to me, ye daughters of Joash, of how the stars in their courses fought against Sisera. Night fell; and at midnight, behold ten men, and each man with a pitcher and a lamp in it in his left hand, and with his axe in his right hand, stole out of his house and met Gideon. Their meeting was beside the altar of Baal and in the grove of Baal, which was built and planted in Joash s high place. For, how could Joash s son think to cast out a single Midianite as long as that unclean altar and those unclean trees stood beside his father s house? He could not. But at every blow of Gideon's swift axe new strength came into his arm. At every tree that fell before his axe his courage rose. And the light of God's countenance returned already to Israel in every star that shone down through the opening spaces in the grove of Baal. Why is your life in such bondage and fear and famine tonight? Why have you not been fed today and every day with the finest of the wheat? Why are you not satisfied every day with honey out of the rock? Arise in this thy might, and the Lord will make of thee also a mighty man of valour. Be sure of this, that thy sure way to deliverance and peace and plenty lies for thee also through that levelled grove and over that prostrate altar.
The dearest idol I have known,
The worshippers of Baal never neglected their morning devotions. Early will I seek thee, they could say to their god with truth and a good con science. And thus it was that before Joash was up that morning the men of the city were gathered already round his door, shouting and demanding, and saying, Bring out thy son Gideon that he may die: because he hath cast down the altar of Baal, and because he hath cut down the grove of Baal. Many men who have not the courage to do a righteous deed themselves have the sense and the grace to be glad when other men do it. And some times you will see a father who is entangled in some evil or doubtful business, but has not the courage or the strength to cut himself and his house clear of it, a proud enough father when his son rises up and sets the whole household free. A vein of true humour ran in the Joash blood ; for that morning the old man met the men of the city with a jest that scattered them all home, just as Gideon his son has enriched our literature to this day with more than one witty word and ready and racy answer. For shame! said Joash, for shame, sirs! Stand back, and go home. Let Baal redress his own wrongs. Baal is a god: and you are only my everyday neighbours. Let Baal arise, but go you home! And Joash brought out Gideon and baptized him Jerubbaal before them all, saying, Let Baal settle his own scores with my sacrilegious son. Let her ladyship now save herself, said John Knox, as he cast the wooden idol overboard. She is light enough; let her learn to swim. After that, we read, was no Scottish man ever urged with that idolatry.
Gideon was a great favourite with Pascal. Gideon s fleece had taken a great hold of Pascal s imagination. You all know the fine story of Gideon s fleece. Gideon was a humble-minded man. Not Moses himself was a more humble-minded man than Gideon was, or more unwilling to come out and be a great man before Israel. Oh, my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? Behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father s house. But, had Gideon not been poor in Manasseh, and the least in his father's house, God would have gone elsewhere for a leader to deliver Israel. And this is always the way of the Lord with men who are to do a great work for Him and for His people to that man will I look, saith the Lord, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembleth at My word. And God said to Gideon, What sign shall I show thee to assure and to confirm thee that thou art he who shall deliver Israel? And the quaint fancy of Gideon fell on a sheep s fleece now wet and now dry when all around it was now dry and now wet. A strange, indeed a fantastic, request to make of God. But, all the same, Gideon made it and got it. Is there humour in the divine mind? asked one of his congenial students at Dr. Duncan, instancing, at the same time, what looked to him like some examples of something not unlike humour both in creation and in providence. It s true and it s not true, was the old doctor s answer. And God did so that night; for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground. You have the whole story from a pen that ennobles and idealises all that it touches. But you may not have read this addition from another pen, that Gideon's mother took that so versatile fleece of his, and cut it out, and sewed it up with her own hands into a soldier s mantle for her elect son: a mantle which he wore under his armour and next his heart in all his after-battles; and his men always witnessed that Gideon with his fleece on was full of hope when they were full of despair; and Again, that he was full of a good captain s caution and forethought when they would have gone headlong to their own destruction. How often I wish with all the world that Pascal had been spared to develop his Thoughts and finish his Apology. What lessons I could then have read you out of Gideon s wonderful fleece! Pascal must have had something great in his mind about Gideon, for we see him taking down Gideon s name in his notebook again and again. But, as we know, Pascal did not live to digest his rich notebook into the great book of his life.
But it is time to come to Gideon s three hundred Ironsides, so to call them. Not a man of Colonel Cromwell s soldiers swears but he pays his twelve-pence. No drinking, no disorders, no plundering, no impiety permitted. They were men that had the fear of God in them, and that made them put away all other fear. Truly they were never beaten at all, boasted their colonel. My troops increase, he wrote to his friend, Oliver St. John. I have a lovely company ; you would respect them did you know them. They are no anabaptists. They are honest, sober, Christian me ; and they expect to be used like men. The result was I raised such men as had the fear of God before them; such men as made conscience of what they did; and from that day forward they were never beaten, but wherever they were engaged against the enemy they beat continually. And truly this is matter of praise to God, and it hath some instruction in it. You see, then, what an Ironside was. An Ironside was a soldier whose whole soul was ribbed and plated all round with sound morals and true religion. Colonel Cromwell s Ironsides were that, and so were Judge Gideon's. And Gideon s three hundred has still some instruction in it, as Cromwell says. And one of these instructions is this, that three hundred good and true men are far better for a great campaign of truth and righteousness than ten thousand men swept together by chance conscription, or picked up for a shilling a head in a public-house. The men are too many, said the Lord to Gideon. And the Lord took one of Gideon s own original and characteristic ways of weeding out that army of deliverance. The day was hot, and the ten thousand came to a river on their march. Their fathers in leaving Egypt had eaten their last supper without taking off their hats or their shoes. They ate that memorable supper standing, with a piece of the Passover lamb in one hand and with their staff in the other.
And three hundred of Gideon's men out of the ten thousand remembered that supper that day, and they swore to themselves and to one another that they would not sit down to eat bread at a table, nor so much as lie down to drink water out of a river, so long as there was a single Midianite left alive in the land. And thus it was that without even taking off their helmets, the three hundred wet their lips out of the hollow of their hand, and were back again that moment in their unbroken ranks. As for Gideon, the dew glistening on his mother s mantle was water enough for him that day. Alexander, being parched with thirst in the desert, took the helmet full of water, but perceiving that the men of arms that were about him did thrust out their necks to look upon this water, he gave it back again unto them that had given it unto him, and thanked them, but drank none of it. For, said he, if I drink alone all these men here will faint. And what wonder if his men began to spur their horses, saying that they were not weary nor athirst, nor did think themselves mortal as long as they had such a king. And all the best work and all the best warfare of the world is done still as it was done in Manasseh and in Macedonia; it is done by those men who are more intent on their work than on their wages : who think more about their armour than about their rations: who eat less that they may work more: and who lap up a mouthful and lose not a moment as they dash on to meet the enemy away past every running water.
But time would fail me to tell you all about Gideon: all about his battles, and all about his victories: about how he behaved himself in battle, and how he bore himself in victory. Like the Ironsides of England, the Ironsides of Israel said to their captain, Rule thou over us, for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian. But Gideon said, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord only shall rule over you. And had Gideon only stopped there, what a noble name, and what a blameless name Gideon s name would have been to us to this day ! But :
The grey-hair d saint may
fail at last,
I have seen
The thorn frown rudely all
the winter long,
And Gideon was that grey-haired
saint ; that sure
Rule thou over us, said all the soldiers and all the people. And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you. But, he went on and as he went on the devil entered into Gideon and he went on I would desire a request of you that you would give me every man the earrings of his prey. And Gideon made an ephod of the earrings and put it in his city, even in Ophra; and all Israel went a-whoring after it, which thing became a snare to Gideon, and to all his house. It must have been the very devil himself. There is no other way of accounting for this terrible catastrophe. The devil has seldom since his first success had such another success over God and God s servants as he had in Gideon s awful fall. For Gideon, when he died, and long before he died, left Israel very much where he had found her when he cut down his father''s unclean grove and overthrew his father s lewd altar. Gideon left Israel under the heel of her oppressors; or if not that just yet, then fast and sure on the way to that. Gideon's great mistake, Gideon's great crime, Gideon's great sin, and Satan's great triumph over Gideon all arose out of this, that all through his magnificent life of service, in Paul's words, the law of Moses, the law of God, had never entered Gideon's heart. In Paul's words, again, Gideon did not know what sin was. He knew suffering in plenty; but, shallow old soldier as he was, he did not know the secret of all suffering. Gideon was as ignorant as the mass of you are what God s law really is, what sin really is, and what the only cure of sin really is. At bottom, and in New Testament words, that was Gideon s fall. And accordingly Gideon made a mock ephod at Ophra, while all the time God had made a true and sure ephod both for Himself and for Gideon and for all Israel at Shiloh. And God s ephod had an altar connected with it, and a sacrifice for sin, and the blood of sprinkling, and the pardon of sin, and a clean heart, and a new life; all of which Israel so much needed, but all of which Gideon, with all his high services, knew nothing about.
Sin was the cause of all the evil that Gideon in his bravery had all his life been battling with; but, instead of going himself, and taking all his Ironsides and all his people up with him to God s house against sin, Gideon set up a sham house of God of his own, and a sham service of God of his own, with the result to himself and to Israel that the sacred writer puts in such plain words. Think of Gideon, of all men in Israel, leading all Israel a-whoring away from God! The pleasure-loving people came up to Gideon's pleasure-giving ephod, when both he and they should have gone to God s penitential ephod. They forgot all about the Midianites as they came up to Ophra to eat and to drink and to dance. Whereas, had they been well and wisely led, they would have gone to Shiloh with the Midianites ever before them, till the God of Israel would have kept the Midianites and all their other enemies for ever away from them. Gideon was a splendid soldier, but he was a very short-sighted priest. He put on a costly ephod indeed, but it takes a great deal more than a costly ephod to make a prevailing priest. Gideon could hew down the enemies of Israel by the thousand; but, all the time, he was doing absolutely nothing to heal the real hurt of the daughter of his people. Gideon could not possibly heal that hurt as long as he did not know what it was nor where it lay.
Your time would not wait
for me to make all the application. But, surely, there can be no need ;
if you have half an eye in your head you must long before now have made
the application for yourself. I see, and you must see, men every
day who are as brave and as bold as Gideon, and as full of anger and revenge
against all the wrongs and all the miseries of their fellow-men; men and
women who take their lives in their hands to do battle with ignorance and
vice and all the other evils that the land lies under: and, all the
time, they go on repeating Gideon s fatal mistake; till, at the end of
their life, they leave all these wrongs and miseries very much as they
found them: nothing better, but rather worse. And all because they set
up an ephod of their own devising in the place of the ephod and the altar
and the sacrifice and the intercession that God has set up for these and
all other evils. They say, and in their goodness of heart they do far more
than merely say, What shall the poor eat, and what shall they drink, and
how shall they be housed? At great cost to themselves they put better
houses for the working classes, and places of refreshment and amusement,
and reading-rooms, and libraries, and baths, and open spaces, and secular
schools and still more secular churches in the room of the cross and the
church and the gospel of Jesus Christ; and they complain that the Midianites
do not remove but come back faster than they can chase them out.
But, as Joash or Gideon might have said in one of their humorous moments,
all these things are so many apothecary's pills to protect a man from the
earthquake. Only, there is much more fitness and sense and likelihood in
the mountebank prescription than there is in all your costly but
unchristian ephods. Either the cross of Christ was an excess and
a superfluity, or your expensive maladroit nostrums for sin are an insult
to Him and to His cross. ... It only remains to say that from that day
on which Gideon put on his ephod of earrings, his mantle which his mother
made ceased to move on his bosom and to speak to his heart. From
that day his mantle was no longer the miraculous fleece of his great days
of victory; from that day and thenceforth it was only the dead skin of
a dead sheep.
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