|Volume 20 Number 1 January 2018||
“So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living” (Ecclesiastes 4:2). This is certainly one of the more unique verses in the entire Bible. Normally in the Old Testament, life is exalted and desired. Even in other places in Ecclesiastes Solomon places a premium on life (9:4, 9). So why was Solomon here congratulating the dead?
Because the dead don’t have to see the worldwide abuse of power. Our world is full of evil men. Those evil men continually abuse power to the hurt of others. If a person has a single sensitive bone in his body, it troubles him to see the abuse of power. Poor people shouldn’t be taken advantage of because they are poor. Sick people, widows, orphans and any person disadvantaged in some way shouldn’t be oppressed. Yet, we see it happening every day on every continent of the world. The dead are better off because they don’t have to see this, Solomon said. So, what is the solution? Solomon suggested that those with power recognize that (a) there is One more powerful than them, (b) they will give an account in Judgment for their deeds.
Because the dead don’t have to see the helplessness of the oppressed. Solomon noted, “Behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them…” (4:1). It is tragic enough that the world has oppressors. It is even more tragic that there are those who will stand by and watch the oppressors and do nothing. “I can’t get involved,” they say. “I don’t even know this person.” Again, what is the solution? Solomon said that a God-fearing person will reach out to help others (cf. James 1:27). “Casting bread upon the waters” (11:1) seems to be an ancient saying designed to encourage generosity and kindness.
In Christianity, we’re encouraged to “do good unto all men” (Galatians 6:10). Taking care of the widows and orphans is called “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:17). We’re encouraged to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:7ff). Christians should do what they can to create an honest and fair world. We also know that God will eventually bring about justice. “Vengeance is mine,” the Lord said, “I will repay” (Romans 12:19).
In Israel’s pre-kingdom days of the Judges, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). This meant religion was practiced by the random whims of the powerful (17-18), violent chaos emanated from the lusts of men (19-21) and oppression from former enemies was employed as a recurring punishment by God (2:11-22; 1-16). In mercy, when the people would cry out for help, God would send a deliverer (a judge).
In one incident, the Midianites, Amalekites and the people of the East (6:3; 7:12) were the collective oppressor enabled by Heaven (6-8). The nature of this oppression was not a one-time, destructive, all-in battle, but a recurring, demoralizing annual event. When the children of Israel would sow their crops, the enemy would bring in their overwhelming forces, “as numerous as locusts; and their camels… without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude” (7:12; cf. 6:5) to stamp out the crops, take the livestock and “leave no sustenance for Israel” (6:4).
Can you sense the yearly demoralization? After one year, “Well, let’s survive the winter and try again.” The same after two. Then, three. Four. Five… It became so bad that they stopped rebuilding and looked for a stronger refuge. “Because of the Midianites, the children of Israel made for themselves the dens, the caves, and the strongholds which are in the mountains” (6:2).
The children of Israel cried out (6:7). God first sent a prophet to remind them that this consequence was the fault of their own sin (6:8-10). Then, He chose a leader.
In one of those marvelous Old Testament theophanies (cf. Genesis 32:22-32; Exodus 3-4; Joshua 5:13-16; Judges 13), “the Angel of the Lord” came to appear to Gideon, the son of Joash the Abiezrite, while he threshed grain. However, Gideon wasn’t threshing grain out in the open as was usual—so the wind could carry away the chaff. He was hiding in the winepress, apparently trying to eke out a living for himself and perhaps some loved ones while hiding from the marauders (6:11). It is quite interesting, and maybe a little ironic, then, that the angel addressed him as a “mighty man of valor” (6:12).
This commenced the call of Gideon. The journey from his call to the defeat of the enemy was quite circuitous, with Gideon being quite unsure that God would be with him. He asked for clarifications and signs. He did not want to launch out on faith just quite yet.
First, Gideon addressed the question of the ages—human suffering. “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’” (Judges 6:13). He, like atheists aplenty, and even deeply hurt people of faith, wondered how God could allow such suffering.
It is hard to blame Gideon for the emotional response. Removed from the scene, we might have the luxury of objectivity to say, “Look, God already told you it was because of sin, and He was doing something—sending you!”
Today’s atheists posit the problem that an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God cannot coexist with suffering. “If He loves and is powerful, He would stop it, so He must not know about it,” they argue. “If He knows and is powerful, He must not care or love.” “If He knows and loves, He must not be powerful enough to stop it.” “And you Christians who claim to believe in the miraculous, where is the miraculous relief from tragedies?”
Necessary brevity here does not allow a full elucidation or response. Nevertheless, note that the basic answers are the same as to Gideon. First, sin brought suffering into the world (Genesis 2-3), although it must be vehemently noted that not every incident of suffering is connected to some personal sin. Sometimes people just get a disease, and they did no particular wrong to deserve it. Still, sin’s reign in the world (2 Corinthians 4:4) allows suffering to persist.
Second, God has done something about it. Removing the suffering would have meant removing the freewill. That would have meant humans were mere robots. Freewill has consequences. Instead of removing the suffering, God came—in the person of His Son—and suffered with His creation in it (Hebrews 2:9; Philippians 2:5-8). That is of Christianity.
After doubting God’s ability and being reassured (6:13-14), Gideon doubted his own ability. He was the weakest of his clan and family (6:15). Again, God reassured him.
At this point, Gideon started requesting signs. The first request was unspecified, but led to a marvelous display of an elaborately prepared meal being consumed by fire, coming out of the rock, and the Angel of the Lord’s immediate departure (6:21-24).
Gideon, then, recognized the Lord’s presence and received a command to test his loyalty. He had to tear down the altar of Baal and accompanying wooden image that were in his father’s backyard! These images were so stout that it would take the assistance of a bull to bring them down. Gideon obeyed, but at night because he feared the people’s reaction (6:25-27).
Even as God was helping the people, the people had not yet fully repented. Baal worship persisted. A plot twist favorable to Gideon took place when the people wanted Gideon’s life for destroying the idolatrous altar, but his father stood up for him. His argument was that if Baal was a god, Baal could take up for himself (6:28-35).
In spite of all this favor, Gideon was not yet convinced. He wanted to put fleece on the ground and have it be wet with dew in the morning, while all the ground around it was dry. Then, he wanted another sign—the opposite (6:36-40). He just couldn’t seem to be convinced. In Judges 7, the narrative turns to Gideon choosing his soldiers; 32,000 respond originally, but that was too many. God did not want Israel to have a chance to think they did this on their own. All who are afraid were offered an exemption, and took it, leaving the number at 10,000. Then, the famous drinking test at the well of Harod took place. The 300 who drank water with their hands to their mouths were selected to defeat the enemy, who had at least 135,000 (7:1-8; 8:10).
Merciful God offered the sign-seeker Gideon yet another sign, even without Gideon’s request. Gideon and Purah went to the outpost of the enemy camp, overheard a dream and one Midianite’s interpretation of it. A loaf of barley bread bounced into the camp and knocked down a tent. That meant the Israelites would defeat the camp of Midian (7:9-17).
With that, the arming of the soldiers took place—with trumpets, pitchers and torches. Three companies of 100 surround the enemy’s camp, and in the early darkness, blew the trumpets, broke the pitchers, and shouted. The noise with the fire of the torches scared and confused the enemy until they defeated themselves with infighting (7:19-23). The chase was on and was won by the Israelites (8:1-17).
Gideon, then, came face to face with the kings who had oppressed him. The reader here is introduced to a fact that must have played heavily on Gideon’s fearful psychology from the beginning. He questioned the kings as to what kind of men they were whom they slew at Tabor. The kings note a resemblance in character and appearance. They were—the reader here learns what Gideon knew all along—Gideon’s brothers (8:18-21).
See into the heart of Gideon? He was hiding in the winepress, afraid, not only because of national, but also due to personal circumstances. See that Gideon was afraid to fight and afraid to tear down an altar. See that Gideon doubted God and doubted himself. Do you wonder how he could be considered a hero listed in Hebrews 11’s faith chapter (v. 32)?
Early in preaching, I asked a friend about Asa, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Kings 15:11), but did not remove the idolatrous high places (15:15). How could it be that he is commended? My friend wisely replied, “Maybe that means there is hope for a wretch like me.”
We shall not continue in sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1-2). That is not the point. The point is that when faithful people have doubts (even of God and of self), God still knows how to be tenderly merciful and use them for His good purposes.
Unsure? I sometimes am, and yet I hope God will forgive me, mold me and still use me.