The only things “laying out a fleece” can tell you

I have been preparing a sermon focusing on Gideon and his defeat of the Midianites. I was particularly struck by two things in the whole incident related to Gideon’s fleece. Here is the passage:

36 Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37 behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” 38 And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40 And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. (Judges 6:36-30)

What seems clear enough is that Gideon does not take God at his word. He is the only judge visited directly by God, the Lord has told him all that will come to pass and even gave him a confirmatory sign as he requested. So it is all the more surprising when Gideon not only seeks yet another sign but wants it doubly confirmed.

It’s worth noticing that v36 and v37 tell us that God’s will was already clear in Gideon’s mind. Notice the repeated phrase “…as you have said”. Whatever else we may wish to say about this fleece incident, it has absolutely nothing to do with discovering God’s will. What God wants to happen, and what will actually transpire as a result, have both been made known in no uncertain terms earlier in the narrative. Gideon was under no illusion as to what God wanted to happen and what He had said will take place.

The two things that struck me most were these. First, Gideon is trying to avoid his call. He is looking to manipulate God and get out of the mission God has given to him. The second thing, which is all the more striking, is that God grants these further signs and effectively lets Gideon manipulate Him. Nevermind that Gideon is demanding things from God in the way one might entreat Baal; forget that Gideon is trying to wriggle out of obeying his calling; ignore the impertinence of demanding signs and wonders from Almighty God who has already done such things for Gideon. Despite all that, God grants Gideon’s demand.

This tells me two important things, chief of which is that God cares about preserving his people more than we do. God didn’t quibble about Gideon’s theological inadequacies. Rather, God accommodated Gideon knowing that he was the one who would lead the people. God was more concerned about how He would use Gideon to save Israel than he was about Gideon’s failings.

We can be wont in the church to worry when things are not as they ought to be. And sometimes it is right to make a big issue out of some of these things. But we can be in danger of forgetting that God is bigger than our theological inadequacies. He is bigger than our less than excellent programmes, our shoddy fellowship, our lack of care, our flakey commitment, our dilapidated buildings and our own inherent sin. That is not to say we can ignore these things, that we shouldn’t strive to glorify God at all times nor that we shouldn’t seek to be as excellent as we can. It is simply to say that God cares more about His church than we do.

I think I care about the church a lot. I spend my life serving it, caring for it, teaching it, worrying about it and praying for it. The church occupies much of my thinking time and it is the primary focus of much of my energy. I have invested a lot into the church and I really care. But as much as I think I care about it, God cares infinitely more. Many of the issues and problems above may worry me (and some of them really worry me); God cares about them all the more. And this is what Jesus Christ had to say about it: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The problems are not insurmountable for God. He will not let his church crumble.

The other thing this fleece incident tells me is that we can be wont to demand clarity from God in what he has already made clear. We can seek to stall God, and avoid serving Him, by throwing up unnecessary roadblocks. Gideon’s fleece was a way of twisting God’s arm so he could get out of doing what God had called him to do. Demanding signs and experiences from God, when He has already made his will abundantly clear, is the height of impudence. It is a refusal to take God at his word and it is a way of trying to skew his will into serving our own purposes.

Interestingly, Gideon’s demand for signs, and God’s gracious response, took him only to one place. Gideon was using the fleece as a construct to hide his own fear and unbelief. By fulfilling the request, God broke down any real barrier to mistrust Him. He brought Gideon to a place where he was forced to either trust in God fully or reject Him altogether. Like that, our demand for signs and experiences may lead us down the same road. The danger is that God may not respond how we expect. If we demand signs and experiences to back up what God has already made clear, we may find ourselves rejecting God altogether if He doesn’t show up in the way we were trying to manipulate. Far better to take God at his word than to demand what He has never promised to give and find ourselves falling away because He chose not to indulge our manipulation.

So, what does a “laying out a fleece” ever tell us? Firstly, it tells us we don’t fully trust in God. It tells us we may be demanding from God what he has already made clear in his word. If we really believe in the sufficiency of scripture, there is nothing outside of his word that is necessary for us to wholly and fully obey God, live holy lives and serve to the praise of his glory. We have all we need to know and serve God properly. Second, if God’s response to Gideon is anything to go by, it tells me that God is bigger than our unbelief. He is bigger than our sin, our faults and our failings. It tells me that even though we may doubt his word, He is still mighty to save and will build His church, whether with us or in spite of us.

9 comments

  1. Hi Steve,

    I really appreciate this post, and the thoughts you’ve drawn out about God’s grace. But I wonder whether you are being rather harsh on Gideon, and misjudging his motives?

    As you say, it clearly is not about guidance, because God made his will, and the outcome abundantly clear. But I think it is unfair to conclude that it is about Gideon trying to avoid his call. Rather, I think the Lord’s gracious response to Gideon’s request indicates that this is about Gideon seeking assurance.

    It seems to me that one of the great aims of these chapters about Gideon is to teach us about the necessity of the felt presence of God – the inward witness of the Holy Spirit – if we are to be courageous in serving the Lord.

    Gideon’s response to the opening words of the Angel indicate that this was uppermost in his mind. “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles?” With Gideon, I don’t believe that doubt was leading him to disobedience. Rather, that in his hunger to know God, he desired to see God made manifest.

    It’s instructive to compare this passage with Exodus 3-4 where the Lord first appears to Moses. If you were to summarise Moses posture, you would say that he is drawing back. It is God who has to press signs upon Moses. By contrast, Gideon is pushing forward, and it is he who is asking signs of God, not from unbelief, but for confirmation.

    Whereas the Lord is angry with Moses in his unbelief (Exodus 4:14), there’s no hint of that with Gideon, even though Gideon fears that God might be (Judges 6:39). What’s more, in the next chapter we find God giving an encouragement to Gideon before he’d even asked (Judges 7:10).

    Hosea 11:3 has the delightful picture of God teaching Ephraim to walk, “taking them by the arms”. And I think that’s the picture we’re seeing here. The Lord is coming to Gideon, not just as his Captain, giving him orders, but as his Father, teaching him how to walk in his ways. Gideon is only just taking his first steps of faith. He is willing, but he needs a hand to hold – a hand which God is abundantly willing to lend.

    I’m so grateful for God’s Fatherly care myself. There have been many times when God’s will has been very clear to me, but I’ve felt an inward paralysis of spirit. I’ve been willing, but weak. Yet, as I’ve waited on the Lord, desiring to keep up my courage, His Spirit has worked in my spirit to strengthen my heart. Sometimes this has come through outward encouragements. More often it has come as I’ve gone to the Bible, and He has illuminated some passage of scripture which revives my hope, and puts a new spring in my step.

    “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31)

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    1. Stephen just read your response to the pastors comments on Gideon and was so glad to see your spot on analyst which I completely agree with. Perhaps you should consider if you have not already becoming a Pastor yourself. we could truly use more of your kind out there. God Bless

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      1. Opps, I said Stephen my comment was meant for Sam who wrote about Pastor Stephen comments about Gideon, I agree with Sam about what he wrote regarding P.Stephen sermon. God Bless again

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  2. Sam,

    Thanks for your comment. Always great to get some interaction from someone who has really considered their position. It is partly why we blog, so we can have this sort of discussion.

    I’m afraid I don’t quite recognise the picture you paint of Gideon (though there are good, solid commentators on either side of this). I think Dale Ralph Davis would come close to your view. Daniel Block and K. Lawson Younger Jr. would be closer to me.

    For a start, the whole tenor of the book of Judges is a downward spiral of increasingly poor leaders failing to serve God as they ought. It begins with Othniel, of whom nothing bad is said, and degenerates from there. Gideon is not necessarily the worst leader but he is not exactly great.

    Start 6:12, for example. God appears to Gideon and his first response is to blame God for the current situation of Israel. In fact, he offers a highly critical and selective version of God’s dealing with Israel. The reason for this becomes clear enough in v25. Gideon was actually a Baal worshipper and had altars to Baal and Asherah in his back yard! Despite God telling Gideon He would be with him several times, Gideon is full of excuses. Note, for example, v15 which – when compared it to v30-32 simply does’t stack up. Joash is clearly well respected in the town and the altars in his yard (along with the livestock he clearly owns) suggest a man of reasonable wealth and influence.

    So we have a picture of a man who receives more assurance than any other judge in the book yet doubts more than any other judge in the book. The fleece incident comes on the back of God’s direct appearance, promise of victory and a confirmatory sign (which, incidentally, is precisely the sort of thing one might seek from Baal. This isn’t surprising given GIdeon is, to all intents and purposes, a Baal worshipper up to this point). Gideon then manages to rouse an army (the very same people who were two verses earlier trying to kill him) yet, despite all of this, then starts demanding signs from God again. Nothing quite seems to be good enough.

    Then if we look at the particular signs he demands, the first “fleecing” is basically asking whether God still wants him to go i.e. has God changed his mind. Wool being a naturally absorbing material, mean it is more natural for it to be wet and the ground to be dry. Though God’s mind obviously hadn’t changed, it was easy to pass off. The second fleecing is against nature (wet ground, dry wool). Gideon admits in v39 he is testing God and it seems apparent that the second request is a means of rejecting the first confirmatory sign. Look in v37, Gideon promises the first sign means he will know God’s word it true. As soon as he receives the sign, he reject it. He lies and goes back on his word, demanding yet further confirmation. Isn’t it interesting that God’s appearance to him, his clear word and three confirmatory signs do nothing to convince Gideon to obey. It is only the word out of the mouth of a couple of pagan Midianites that finally convinces Him (and that only because they are clearly more fearful than Gideon himself).

    There are obvious reasons why God doesn’t appear angry and seems to accommodate Gideon. First, if Gideon believed at all at this point, he has only within days ceased worshipping Baal. Moses, by contrast, had already associated with God’s people (hence why he was in the desert) and had many more years of belief behind him. Similarly, the overarching thrust of Judges is that the vast majority of the people had rejected God in favour of the Baals. Again, by contrast, that is not the situation of the Israelites during the Egyptians captivity who do trust the Lord (albeit between the odd grumble). The instruments available at the time of the judges were crude indeed. Yet God graciously cares more about the preservation of the people than the people seem to care about persevering with God. It’s also worth noting, Gideon only worshipped God after hearing the interpretation of the Midianite dream. It is the last time he worships God anywhere in the narrative and, following victory, he goes off into idol worship once again.

    God uses all sorts of instruments for his glory in scripture. Both Nebuchadnezzar (prior to belief) and Cyrus the Great are used as God’s tools despite the fact they knew nothing of God at the time. Cyrus never came to know the Lord (as Isaiah makes clear). I don’t think we necessarily have to rescue the character and righteousness of all the judges. if anything, the book is there to show us the extent to which God wishes to preserve his people even in the face of a lack of leadership and especially in the face of his own people’s faithlessness.

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  3. It seems that Spurgeon would beg to differ (http://www.gospelweb.net/SpurgeonMTP28/spursermon1679.htm)!

    He has such encouraging things to say that I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting at length!

    “Gideon’s character has never been sufficiently admired—Scripture names, much less bright than his, have been preferred before him by the general ministry, yet he deserves far better treatment. He was a man gentle and yet strong, cautious and yet venturesome. He was a searching inquirer and an intense Believer. While he was a sort of foreshadowing of David, he had much of the afterglow of Joshua. He was a truly great man, though his later days were overshadowed by a grievous religious error and a sad moral fault. Despite his failings, he was one of the greatest of the heroes of faith. He was not in a hurry to venture upon a pitched battle, but waited his time, and then, by a sudden and unexpected attack, he struck the whole host with panic so that they fled at once and Midian was smitten as one man.

    The Covenant Angel said to him, “Jehovah is with you, you mighty man of valor.” I think his spirit ought greatly to have rejoiced at that assurance and, perhaps, it did, for what better thing can happen to any man than to receive such a token for good? If God is for us, who can be against us? We know how sweet is the assurance that being justified by faith we have peace with God. It is well with us when we are assured that the Lord is with us, our helper, our shield, our portion forever and ever! But there arose in Gideon’s mind a grave anxiety. His was a very careful, thoughtful soul, for he was a man of prudence—large-hearted, far-seeing and given to look at things coolly and steadily—and there arose in his heart a question, serious and vital, “Is this the voice of God to me, or am I deluded? Is God at peace with me, or am I like the rest, plunged in a horrible warfare against the living God?”

    Therefore he puts a question and he asks for a sign that he might make sure of what he was about. Brothers and Sisters, in spiritual matters you and I had need be sure! If we have peace within our spirit, let us make certain that it is the peace of God, for there are still voices that cry, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace. Siren songs still charm men to ruin with their dulcet notes. Still does the fatal river flow most smoothly as it approaches the dreadful cataract. Beware of that Word of the Lord, “When they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction comes upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.”

    None are more quiet than the ungodly when they are given up to a strong delusion. The Psalmist says of them, “There are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men.” It was no so with Gideon—his anxiety made itself visible. He was not the man to leap at a shadow—he sought for substance. If he was to have peace, he must have it from God. If he was to be delivered, he longed to have victory plain and permanent. The favor which he asked was requested because anxiety troubled him and he wished to make assurance doubly sure. He desired to know from God, Himself, that his mission was authentic and his success certain.

    But, at the moment recorded in our text, he was smarting under a cruel oppression, conscious of God’s anger for Israel’s sin, and overshadowed by God’s own Presence and, therefore, his mind was ready to rush from one fear to another. Only see the beauty of it—that he always tells his fear to God, always goes to Him for comfort and, therefore— always obtains succor! The brave man is not he who sees no fear, but he who, seeing the danger, rises superior to it. Such was Gideon, tossed to and fro from one fear to another, but never tossed off from his God and so, always sure to right himself. One thing is noteworthy, namely, that Gideon’s greatest fear arose out of a sign which he had, himself, asked for. He said, “Show me a sign,” and when he had that sign, namely, God’s coming to him, then it was that he was afraid.

    Be very cautious how you ask for signs, for they may work your discouragement rather than your comfort. I have known some say, “I shall not believe I am a child of God unless I feel a deep sense of sin.” And when they have entered into that feeling, they have exclaimed, “I will never again ask for this!” I have heard of others who thought they could come to Christ if they were gently drawn—and the Lord has been gently drawing them—and then they have wished that they had been more troubled and distressed! They imagine that they could have believed more readily had their despair been greater— certainly a strange notion! We are always busy in manufacturing fresh doubts—and for raw material we use the very tokens for which we so earnestly besought the Lord!

    We cry aloud, “Show me a token for good,” and when the token is given, we are amazed at being heard and fall to fearing more sadly than before. Therefore pray for such gifts with bated breath and say twice over concerning such things, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” All this while Gideon had one Truth before him which ought to have prevented all his fears, for the Lord had spoken to him, and said, “Go, in this your might, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent you?” Look, he goes home fearing that he will die, and yet that could not be! How could he die if he was to deliver Israel? He must be a live man to do that and yet, you see, he forgets to reason for his own comfort, but takes care to argue for his fears.

    Have I never seen my Hearers doing this? I have often caught myself at it—refusing to use my logic for the strengthening of my faith—but perverting reason in order to assist my unbelief! Is not this foolish and wicked? Too often we are industrious in the fabrication of discomfort and utterly idle in the search for joy. This is folly and yet, better men than we are have fallen into this fault, too. The Lord save us from it! In drawing near to God is our peace and if, in that process, a sense of the Presence of God casts us down and creates a more poignant sorrow than we had at the first, let us not, therefore, shrink from the process, but push on with all our might! As our safety lies in coming to God, to Him we must approach at all hazards.

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  4. Hi Steve,

    This question has been going around in my head for much of the day. For some reason the Lord seems to have laid it on my heart!

    I feel that at stake is the question of the spirit in which we assess the motives and evaluate the character of another believer.

    Hebrews 11 clearly states that Gideon was one of those who “obtained a good testimony through faith”. We deduce from this that he was saved by grace, and that he is therefore a brother in Christ.

    Suppose that a close relative were to be accused of an offence and, for whatever reason, the first you heard about it was a newspaper report of the trial. You know this relative well, and know him to be of good character. What would be the spirit in which you read the report?

    It seems to me that, since our heavenly Father has recieved Gideon, and put his stamp of approval on his life (obviously without condoning all that he did and said) we should evaluate his life with that same charitable spirit we would use to a brother, father or son. Justice wouldn’t permit us to excuse his faults, but we would be attributing best motive as we attempted to understand his actions.

    We’re going to be spending eternity with Gideon, and I’m sure we’ll be having many a conversation with him in the ages ahead. It could make for an awkward first meeting if we discover that we’ve misrepresented his words and actions to others!

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  5. With respect, I’m not sure my potential feelings if I possibly meet Gideon in glory is a particularly strong basis for evaluating the text. My feelings should not play any part in my interpretation. I’m afraid it is neither an exegetically nor hermeneutically strong line of argument. For what it’s worth, we will both be perfect in Heaven and neither of us “will be put to shame” anyway. So, frankly, in that hypothetical I’m not sure either of us will be bothered!

    Nor am I convinced that Hebrews 11 necessarily teaches Gideon had saving faith. We are told of a series of people who, by faith, were moved to certain actions. Salvation is not mentioned. I am not saying he necessarily didn’t have saving faith, but I’m not sure Hebrews determines that he did. What it tells us is that he did something by faith (namely, in Gideon’s case, being made strong out of weakness). The people listed are commended for their faith but there is every reason to believe it is their faith in God at the particular point they did the specific action listed. It is not to say that means they weren’t saved, it just doesn’t necessarily mean they were.

    So to argue that God put his “stamp of approval” on Gideon’s life is something of a stretch from the text. Equally, if we look at Judges 8 – following Gideon’s victory over Midian – his ephod hardly leaves him in a state where he is following God and the text does not give its “stamp of approval” on his life. What follows relating to his sons only makes matters worse.

    Let’s also look at this from a biblical theology perspective. Most people read judges after Joshua. The end of Joshua’s rule leaves everything in a wonderful state and the people follow God. Judges comes along and we see total degeneration amongst the people and leaders of Israel. Ruth is followed on the heels of Judges to shame Israel. The thrust is look how this non-Israelite is following the Lord in a way that the Israelite people were not. That is followed up by Samuel and Kings which document the rise of the Davidic kings which Judges is looking forward to. The whole point of the book of Judges is to show how corrupt, chaotic and rudderless Israel (and its leaders) were without a king. I think we have to assess Gideon (and the other judges) in this light.

    As I have said, good commentators differ over this issue. That should tell us, if nothing else, this is not as cut and dry as you might suppose. It is not a matter of first-order importance so we should be able to disagree too. I think this is probably one of those times we will have to do just that.

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