God’s Way With Weak Leaders in Troubled Times
Have you ever heard something like this? “We need more men like Gideon to lead the people of God.” It is an understandable sentiment, especially considering Gideon’s historical context. Though it has characterized humanity ever since Adam’s fall, the refrain of Judges reverberates loudly in our day: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). The period between Joshua and Saul was rife with lawlessness, aimlessness, idolatry, adversity, and disunity among God’s chosen people. Parts of it are difficult to read aloud, not unlike modern headlines. Leadership in such circumstances is undeniably crucial. We might ask, “Where is a Gideon?”
However, the account of this Israelite judge and his family in Judges 6–9 seems to hold as many negative lessons in leadership as positive ones. Few of us would hold out Gideon’s tentativeness or fleece-setting as exemplary. None of us would advocate for casting a golden ephod to aid worship or having marital relations with multiple women. We would be devastated if our sons turned out like Abimelech. When we are looking for spiritual leadership in troubled times we don’t mean, “Be a carbon-copy of Gideon.” So, what should we mean?
As our family was reading Judges 7 recently, I was struck by God’s way with this weak leader. The narrative is familiar. After the fleece incident, Gideon and 32,000 men prepare for battle by encamping south of the Midianites. At this point the Lord speaks to Gideon four times (7:2, 4, 7, 9). First, God tells the reluctant judge that the size of his army would lend itself to Israel boasting, “My own hand saved me” (7:2). So, the “fearful and trembling”—70% of Israel’s soldiers—went home (7:3). Then the Lord tells Gideon to differentiate between the lappers and the kneelers. This reduces Gideon’s army to less than 1% of its original size. An unusual process to prepare for battle, to say the least.
Though it has sometimes been suggested that the 300 lappers were more fit to fight, the point of the text is far different. The Lord speaks to Gideon a third time: “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home” (7:7). The 300 lappers are not a special forces prototype. Rather, Gideon’s small battalion is a testament to the Lord’s glorious purposes. Yes, God works in spite of our weakness. But the point is even more profound. This passage and so many others reveal that God orchestrates history so that weak people realize that “the victory belongs to the Lord” alone (Prov. 21:31). God designed the drastic downsize so that Gideon and Israel would feel weak, not strong.
The fourth word from the Lord to Gideon further reveals God’s way with weak leaders. After directing him to attack the Midianite camp, the Lord continues with a surprising addendum, “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” (7:10–11). If we had been dealing with a middle manager who repeatedly hesitated, we may not have been so patient. But the Lord’s ways are higher than ours (Isa. 55:9). He knows Gideon is still afraid and, therefore, orchestrates confirmation through the timely recounting of a Midianite’s dream. God designs the events of this spy mission so that Gideon, weak as he was, would not be afraid. “He knows our frame” (Ps. 103:14).
None of God’s actions justify moral failure or unbelief. In fact, Israel would not have been delivered from the Midianites if Gideon had not believed the words of the Lord and obeyed. He took the 300 men the Lord left him and formulated an unusual torchlit, trumpet-blowing, jar-smashing plan. In other words, the Lord ensured that Gideon felt his weakness and assured him of victory. Nevertheless, Gideon still had to lead. Remember Gideon’s initial protest: “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (6:15). The Lord, however, had raised him up for such a time as this. He even called Gideon “mighty man of valor” (6:12). We may be tempted to conclude that, since we are all weak God must intend other means by which to accomplish His will. But that would be to misjudge the qualifications for spiritual leadership.
I presume that more than a few who are responsible to lead families and departments and ministries and churches have felt a deep sense of weakness these past few months. The divine author of Judges had us in mind, because “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Judges 7 encourages us by showing God’s way with weak leaders in troubled times. He intends for us and those around us to recognize our weakness, and probably to a degree beyond what we already know. That is how the Lord puts his glorious power on display (2 Cor. 12:9). At the same time, God shepherds us, shaping situations to bolster our faith in the midst of weakness. Through honesty about our weakness and willingness to follow God’s words, we can stand “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph. 6:10).