THE TORCH BEARERS
by Steve Zeisler
The 142nd regiment of the United States Army was one of the most decorated
of all during World War II. It was made up of Japanese Americans, some of
whom were recruited from internment camps where Japanese citizens had been
placed after Pearl Harbor. The 142nd served with extraordinary distinction
fighting in Europe, and some of these soldiers helped liberate Dachau, the
concentration camp where thousands of Jews had been executed. There was
a meeting last week in San Francisco of the Holocaust Oral History Project,
during which concentration camp survivors and the Japanese soldiers who
liberated them were brought together for the first time since the end of
World War II.
A spokesman for one of the units known as Charley Battery, an artillery
unit in the 142nd, is George Oiye. George is an active member of this church.
He was quoted in the paper as saying: "These soldiers were fighting
for a country where they had been excluded from the democratic process,
mistrusted and treated as second class citizens." And out of the maltreatment,
they went on to serve their nation heroically.
A crisis illuminates the character of a person. This is true for George
Oiye. He continues to reflect the character demonstrated during the liberation
of Dachau. He knows firsthand what it is like to be treated badly, to suffer,
and to be excluded. He has also consistently continued to be a liberator
of people. Throughout his Christian life, he has looked for people who were
in bondage or hurting. He has cared for these people, brought them to faith,
or strengthened their faith. He has been hurt and knows how to minister
to the hurting.
Hacker Or Hero?
Gideon is the figure whose life we are now studying in the book of Judges.
He is at a point of crisis in his life amidst the warfare that surrounds
him. He is to lead his people into battle. In chapters 6 and 7, we find
Gideon discussing life with the Lord. He is honest about his struggle to
believe God. And the Lord is tender and compassionate in his response to
Gideon. We left the account having read in verse 33 of chapter 6 that the
Midianites, the Amalekites, and the sons of the East had assembled themselves,
crossed over, and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. The current enemies of
the nation Israel were a coalition of forces---Bedouin tribes and people
to the south and east of the land of Canaan---that came yearly to ruin the
lives of the people of God. Once a year, they would come across the desert
on camels and encamp after the harvest in Israel. They would take everything
that had been grown for that year and bring the people into material and
psychological ruin. Once again, the time has come for the Midianite raiders
to arrive, and they have assembled in the Valley of Jezreel.
We saw earlier in chapter 6 that Gideon was willing to stand up against
the faithless Israelites who worshiped Baal in his city, Abiezer. Baal did
not protect the Israelites when the Midianite raiders came. With fear in
his heart, Gideon, the man of God, tore down a shrine to Baal, and Baal
couldn't defend himself against Gideon either. The people of the city said,
"Let's see what Baal will do. Let's see if Baal will strike this upstart
and bring him down." Nothing happened. So they called Gideon Jerubbaal,
"the one who conquers Baal."
Judges 7:1 notes that our hero has two names---Gideon and Jerubbaal. The
word Gideon means "hacker," or "cutter." It would be
the name of an undistinguished person, an ordinary laborer or peasant. As
we've seen, the word Jerubbaal means "the one who conquers Baal."
Gideon has struggled throughout his life, going back and forth between who
he was and who he is. Was he a hacker? Or was he a hero? Early in his interaction
with God, he says to the angel of the Lord, "O Lord, how shall I deliver
Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest
in my father's house." Later in his life, in chapter 8, we read, "The
men of Israel said to Gideon, 'Rule over us, both you and your son, also
your son's son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.'"
Is he Gideon or Jerubbaal? Gideon is a complex person---everyone is. We
wonder about our identity, wrestle with what's true of us, and try to live
our lives based on what God says we are, rather than on what we fear we
are when we look only at ourselves and our circumstances.
Faith is expressed by our unwillingness to displease the Lord
There are three issues that the Lord and Gideon discuss in the context of
Gideon's need for faith. The end of chapter 6 and chapter 7 are about God
helping Gideon to become a man of faith and to throw off the choking pressure
of faithlessness which had brought his life low. First, in chapter 6, verse
36, Gideon asks for a sign that he is to be the deliverer of Israel as God
had said he would be. He's probably much like you and me when we think at
times about how God's promises apply to us-will they work for me? will they
apply to my heart and my hurts? Second, in chapter 7, verse 10, God and
Gideon are going to discuss the descent of terror that happens when we have
to face something that seems utterly overwhelming to us. The Lord says to
Gideon, "If you are afraid to go down and fight, I will act on your
behalf to deal with your fear."
Third, Gideon will have to address an issue which he never thought he'd
have to face-how do you deal with success? For years, this man has seen
his people overwhelmed by the Midianites. He knows clearly his incapacities
and weaknesses. This last concern, though completely unanticipated, will
be the most significant of all tests of faith.
The Lesson Of The Fleece
The enemy is in the Valley of Jezreel. Gideon has called together an army
of 32,000 men, and they are camped in the mountains looking down on the
hordes that are arrayed before them. The famous story of Gideon and the
fleece follows in chapter 6, verses 36-40:
Then Gideon said to God, "If Thou wilt deliver Israel through
me, as Thou hast spoken, behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing
floor. If there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground,
then I will know that Thou wilt deliver Israel through me, as Thou has spoken."
And it was so. When he arose early the next morning and squeezed the fleece,
he drained the dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water. Then Gideon said
to God, "Do not let Thine anger burn against me that I may speak once
more; please let me make a test once more with the fleece, let it now be
dry only on the fleece, and let there be dew on all the ground." And
God did so that night; for it was dry only on the fleece, and dew was on
all the ground.
Consider what Gideon is asking of God. In verse 17 of chapter 6, he said
to the angel of the Lord, "Show me a sign that it is Thou who speakest
with me." He needed a sign that the angel really was from God. And
fire came out of the staff of the angel of the Lord and consumed the offering;
he was convinced that God was speaking. Now he knows what God has said,
but he doesn't know if it will work for him. Gideon wants help in his struggle
to believe. He wants to know that God's promises apply to a hacker like
him. The story of the fleece is often improperly used to teach a method
for finding God's will. Some might say, "I'll put a fleece before the
Lord to see if he wants me to take that new job." Depending on the
result of this test, they believe that they'll have their answer concerning
God's will for them.
This is a misreading of Gideon's interaction with the Lord. He twice uses
the phrase, "as thou hast spoken" (v. 36, 37). He doesn't lack
information about the will of God; he lacks confidence to trust the word
of God. Our Lord is very condescending and kind to him. Gideon sets out
the fleece the first night, and it comes back exactly as he's asked. But
you can see Gideon's mind at work: "It would be more likely for the
water to be absorbed by the wool than the ground. Maybe it's an accident.
Maybe the fact that the wool is wet and the ground is dry would have happened
anyway. It's not really a sign of anything." So he makes a second request
of God: "Will you reverse the process-make the ground wet and the fleece
dry?" Gideon's response suggests the inadequacy of the whole process.
Every time that you ask God to prove something by these means, the results
are always difficult to interpret.
Suppose that you asked the Lord to give you a job offer at a specified time
and wage, as confirmation that you should take the job. If the offer comes
a day late and just short of the amount, does that mean that God doesn't
want you to take the job? A Christian organization may feel that it should
raise a specified amount of money as confirmation that it should start a
new project. What is the message from God if the group only raises ninety-five
percent of the specified amount? These litmus tests are always difficult
to interpret. Gideon's real struggle is one of faith, not information. The
most important note is Gideon's phrase in verse 39: "Do not let Thine
anger burn against me that I may speak once more. . . ." God builds
Gideon's faith by reminding him in his heart of hearts that the living God
will not be pushed too far.
During his two days of struggling to believe, Gideon developed an increased
fear of God. By the end of the process, he's more afraid to affront God
one more time than he is to face the Midianites. And his faith has grown
as a result. Faith is expressed by our unwillingness to displease the Lord.
In asking for help, Gideon has learned to fear God, and it is this fear
of God that makes him willing to act. His unwillingness to ask God another
time made him realize that he really did trust, fear, and know God.
Will God Help Me?
With the fleece, Gideon questions whether God will do for him what he said
he would do. We often think that God's promises work for other people, but
we don't think they're true for us. My wife's best friend from her early
childhood was her next door neighbor Lynn. They grew up together from a
very young age and did everything together. There are pictures of Lynn and
Leslie as little girls, junior highers, and high schoolers-best of friends.
We discovered last week that Lynn has very serious breast cancer. She had
to have a radical mastectomy, and she's facing a long process of treatment
and therapy. Perhaps her life is in the balance. I thought of pictures of
Lynn and Leslie-they grew up in the same town, they drank the same water,
they were subject to the same toxins. It could easily have been my wife.
If the assignment were for us to face cancer together, would I be able to
walk by faith? I have preached to other people, visited folk in the hospital
with cancer, and talked about the promises of God. I've urged others to
believe. But I wondered if I would be able to say that God's promises apply
to me. Would I be able to grasp the hand of God and trust him? My immediate
answer is, "Perhaps not." The personal ministry of the Lord to
Gideon at a time when he had sufficient information, but insufficient faith,
is encouraging. God's promises apply to all of his children without exception.
We need not fear that we would fail the test.
The second question comes in chapter 7, verse 10, when God asks Gideon if
he's afraid. First verses 7:1-8:
Then Jerubbaal [that is, Gideon] and all the people who were
with him, rose early and camped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp
of Midian was on the north side of them by the hill of Moreh in the valley.
And the Lord said to Gideon, "The people who are with you are too many
for Me to give Midian into their hands, lest Israel become boastful, saying,
'My own power has delivered me.' Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing
of the people, saying, 'Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return
and depart from Mount Gilead.'" So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000
remained. Then the Lord said to Gideon, "The people are still too many;
bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. Therefore
it shall be that he of whom I say to you, 'This one shall go with you,'
he shall go with you; but everyone of whom I say to you, 'This one shall
not go with you,' he shall not go."
So he brought the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon,
"You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue, as
a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink." Now the number
of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but
all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water. And the Lord said to
Gideon, "I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give
the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man
to his home." So the 300 men took the people's provisions and their
trumpets into their hands. And Gideon sent all the other men of Israel,
each to his tent, but retained the 300 men; and the camp of Midian was below
him in the valley."
Lessons About Fear
God has taken an overwhelming situation and made it impossible. Thirty-two
thousand men appeared to have no chance of winning a battle against the
hordes of the Midianites and their superior weaponry. For 300, it's laughable.
The criterion for choosing the 300 men seems peculiar. After 22,000 fearful
soldiers leave, the rest are separated by how they drink water. The vast
majority of them bent their faces down and drank water from the stream directly.
But a small number stood up alertly, cupped the water in their hands, and
lapped it from their hands. This suggests that the group that was chosen
was not so terrified that it would leave with the original 22,000. But these
individuals were still scared enough to look around for Midianites wherever
they went, even when they got a drink of water. They weren't absolutely
sure of themselves, and they were aware of the dangers. This is the right
group of soldiers for the purposes of God. They are apt to be willing to
trust him and also to have enough courage to follow through on the battle
plan. Verses 9-15:
Now the same night it came about that the Lord said to him, "Arise,
go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hands. But if you
are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, and
you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened
that you may go down against the camp." So he went with Purah his servant
down to the outposts of the army that was in the camp. Now the Midianites
and the Amalekites and all the sons of the east were lying in the valley
as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous
as the sand on the seashore.
When Gideon came, behold, a man was relating a dream to his
friend. And he said, "Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread
was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck
it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat."
And his friend answered and said, "This is nothing less than the sword
of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel; God has given Midian and all
the camp into his hand." And it came about when Gideon heard the account
of the dream and its interpretation, that he bowed in worship. He returned
to the camp of Israel and said, "Arise, for the Lord has given the
camp of Midian into your hands."
God says to Gideon, "If you are afraid to go down against the Midianites,
let me help you." Even though God had assured Gideon that his promises
did apply to him, he still knew the personal anguish that Gideon felt as
he looked out on the Valley of Jezreel and saw the enemy arrayed before
him as the sand of the sea. Despite everything he knew, he was immobilized
by fear. At the Lord's initiative, Gideon and a young boy went down to hear
Midianite sentries talking about the dream in which a barley loaf flattened
a tent. The barley loaf is stale and useless. Barley was most often used
as animal food, but it was all that the Israelites had left because all
the better foodstuffs had been taken. The barley loaf clearly represents
Israel at its depth. But the barley loaf brings low the invading army.
Gideon is known by name in the place of his enemies. In their interpretation,
the enemies realize that Gideon, the servant of the Lord, is going to defeat
them. Gideon sensed that the dream had been repeated throughout the whole
army of the Amalekites and the Midianites. They had been terrorized inwardly
by the mysterious working of God. This army was already defeated. However,
you can't see demoralization from the mountain. The numbers are still visible
and imposing; the weaponry is just as strong. What God does after he says
to Gideon, "Are you afraid?" is to make him aware of invisible
realities which he couldn't perceive through his five senses.
God's promises apply to all of his children without exception
Tennessee Ernie Ford died last week. I heard his most famous song, "Sixteen
Tons," being played in his memory on the radio. The refrain from this
song about a coal miner who's been defeated by life goes: "Sixteen
tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't
you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store."
This song, sung in Ernie Ford's deep bass voice, is the song of someone
who's terrified, beaten, and without hope. It's the story of someone with
limited vision who only sees the company store, his own productiveness,
and finally his failure and loss. Gideon could have sung this song on the
mountain looking down on Jezreel, but God said, "There are things you
cannot see, invisible realities that are greater than the things you can
Torches And Trumpets
The battle account continues in verses 16-23:
And he divided the 300 men into three companies, and he put
trumpets and empty pitchers into the hands of all of them, with torches
inside the pitchers. And he said to them, "Look at me, and do likewise.
And behold, when I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I
and all who are with me blow the trumpet, then you also blow the trumpets
all around the camp, and say, 'For the Lord and for Gideon.'" So Gideon
and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp
at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just posted the watch;
and they blew the trumpets and smashed the pitchers that were in their hands.
When the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the pitchers, they
held the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right hands
for blowing, and cried, "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!"
And each stood in his place around the camp; and all the army ran, crying
out as they fled. And when they blew 300 trumpets, the Lord set the sword
of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled
as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah,
by Tabbath. And the men of Israel were summoned from Naphtali and Asher
and all Manasseh, and they pursued Midian.
Their weapons are torches covered by pottery and horns slung over their
shoulders. At the right instant, the pottery comes off and is crashed against
the rock with a loud noise. The torches flame up and are held high, and
the trumpets are sounded. And the already unnerved Midianite warriors, terrified
by what God would do, are jolted and confused by the great noise. Many are
awakened in the middle of the night. The Amalekites, who don't speak the
same language as the Midianites, begin to fight their allies. There are
stampedes and slashings one of another, and the enemy destroys itself through
a miracle of God.
There is a last point to make that is even subtly hinted at in the section
that I've just read. Gideon told his men, "When you go forward, yell
out the phrase 'For Yahweh and for Gideon.'" He knew that the enemy
recognized his name-the remarkable Gideon. But when the fighters actually
yell the phrase out, they say, "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon."
These fighters, as they began to realize the effectiveness of the strategy
and as they saw their enemy crumbling before them, began to think of themselves
with a sword in their hand, as if the human contribution in defeating the
enemy would play some part in the battle. They began to imagine that their
valor as warriors was doing something more than just bearing testimony to
the power of God-yelling his name and holding his torch high. This is exactly
why the warning in chapter 7, verse 2, is so important. The power of God
brought deliverance, not the power of the Israelites. We face this danger
when we see God conquer our fears and liberate us from our hurts. When we're
safe and the healing is done, we may want to take credit for what God has
accomplished. The 300 fighters who stayed with Gideon began to imagine a
sword in their hand instead of a trumpet. These are the very ones in chapter
8, verse 22, who ask Gideon to be their king. Chapter 8, verse 22:
Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, "Rule over us, both
you and your son, also your son's son, for you have delivered us from the
hand of Midian."
This was the most dangerous moment in Gideon's life-being faced with taking
credit for God's work and becoming the acclaim of the people. By the grace
of God, Gideon answers, "I will not rule over you, nor shall my son
rule over you; the Lord will rule over you." Gideon's faith had grown
through the process of war, allowing him to see that the victory was won
by the power of God, not by the genius of the general.
Jesus met a father whose son was epileptic, as recorded in Mark 9. The man
was terrified for his son because he realized that the epilepsy endangered
his son's life; he loved him very much. Jesus asked him if he had faith:
"Do you believe that I can do what you're asking?" The man answered,
"Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." This is Gideon's cry, and
it is ours as well. We do believe, but there is so much that we don't believe.
There are so many times when we hear the promises of God as applying to
everyone else, but not to us.
There are times when we are immobilized because we are afraid. God will
help us to see the invisible realities that are greater than the things
that cause us to fear. Lastly our Lord is wise enough to realize that, when
he finally brings us release and victory, we will want to take credit for
his work. We long to maximize our contribution to the process and diminish
his miracle. We love to pat ourselves on the back for having made it through
the tough times. And someone will want to make us king, and we'll want to
be king. But by the grace of God, faith will hold us on that day as well.
The faith that we've learned in the war will allow us the strength to say,
"It is my Lord who deserves the credit. He shall rule over us."
Catalog No. 4306
October 20, 1991
Copyright © 1991 Discovery
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