Gideon’s Band – Sifted for Service
God Wants the Best
Salvation is for all. Service is for those chosen for it. All may serve. That all do not is simply because service requires qualities which all do not have. Yet, again, all may have them who will, for the required qualities are heart qualities. And every one of us can cultivate the heart qualities. There is special service, chiefly of leadership, requiring brain qualities as well as heart. But the Master attends to the choosing of men for such service.
And where His spirit has touched human hearts there will be a glad doing of just what service He appoints. It will be an honor to do just what He asks because He asks. What it may happen to be will be a small matter in itself. It is for Him, at His desire, and that is full enough to bring out the best we have.
Our old Tarsus and Antioch friend and leader has written a special word about this matter of being chosen for service. It is in his first letter to the recently organized church at Corinth. It is really his second letter, for he seems to have written one before it that has not been preserved. There were some very serious matters in this new church requiring strong treatment by its much-loved founder. Among them was one about service.
There were some who had gifts in service that seemed more attractive and desirable than others had, it might be said more showy. And their brethren, not free from the old worldly spirit, were envious and jealous. And these who had such gifts were not free from a boasting spirit. Factions or parties had arisen as a result. It was the bad world spirit of competition and rivalry in among Christ’s followers where it should never come, yet where it still does come. In writing this letter Paul throughout blends great plainness and common sense with great tenderness.
In the beginning of his letter he calls attention to the fact that there are not many among them of those who were reckoned by the world’s standards as wise or mighty or noble. On the contrary, in choosing His leaders God had purposely chosen those reckoned by the world’s standards foolish that He might show plainly the shallowness of what they deem wise. And so things reckoned weak had been chosen to give the conception of what true strength is. And things even base, and despised, and not counted at all had been used that so men might learn the God-standards of wisdom and strength and honor and of what is worth while. The purpose being that men should quit glorying in themselves and glorify Him from whom everything had come, and was ever coming.
The passage has oftentimes been quoted as though God prefers weakness; never put so bluntly as that perhaps, but plainly meaning that. That of course is not true. God wants the best we have. He needs the best. And for leadership often His plans must wait till a man of the sort needed can be gotten. And gotten frequently means broken, shattered, and then made over wholly new, that the native strength may be used according to true standards.
Jacob was chosen rather than his elder brother Esau, not because of Jacob’s goodness but because of Esau’s weakness. God was narrowed to these two grandsons in carrying out the promise to Abraham. Jacob was contemptible in his moral dealings, but he had qualities of leadership wholly lacking in his brother. His moral character was a serious hindrance. God had to handle him heroically before He could get the use of his stronger mental equipment. Jacob had to get a bad throw-down before he would be willing to let God have His way. His body must be weakened before his mental power would yield. That was the weakness of his stubbornness. Stubbornness is strength not strong enough to yield.
God’s Use of Weak Things
It is true that over and over again God has used men utterly weak and foolish and despised in the light of life’s common standards. He wants men of the best mental strength, of the finest mental training, and He uses such when they are willing to be used, and governed by the true God-standards of life. But talent seems specially beset with temptation. The very power to do great things seems often to bewilder the man possessing it. Wrong ambition gets the saddle and the reins and whip too, and rides hard.
Frequently some man who had not guessed he had talent, born in some lonely walk of life, without the training of the schools, is used for special leadership. It takes longer time always. Early mental training is an enormous advantage. Carey the cobbler had mental talents to grace a Cambridge chair. It took a little longer time to get him into shape for the pioneer work he did in India. Duff’s training gave him a great advantage.
But God is never in a hurry. He can wait. What He asks is that we shall bring the best we have natively, with the best possible training, and let Him use us absolutely as He may wish. And always remember that every mental power is a gift from Him; that actual power in life must be through Him only; and that mental gifts are not serviceable save as they are ever inbreathed by His own Spirit.
This word of Paul’s finds most graphic illustration in the book of Judges. Judges should be put alongside of the first chapter of First Corinthians. It is a series of pictorial illustrations of what Paul is saying there. These two books, Joshua and Judges, side by side in the Old Testament stand in sharpest contrast. The keynote of Joshua is victory; of Judges defeat. There’s music in both, but contrasted music. Joshua rings with songs in the major key, triumphant, militant, joyous, victorious.
The music of Judges is in the minor, sad and weeping, with the harps hanging on the willows. Joshua is upon the mountain top with sun shining and air bracing and outlook inspiring. Judges is down in the valley bottoms, dark and gloomy, and depressing. Yet Judges has bright spots, and has spurts of good music interspersed. It is a study in lights and shadows, bright lights, and dark shadowings, but with the blacker tints intensifying and overcoming the others.
There are here seven striking illustrations of God’s use of strange unusual means, such as are reckoned weak and trivial. A left-handed man uses that peculiarity to get a great victory and eighteen years of freedom for the nation. A farmer with as homely a weapon as an ox-goad delivers his people from oppression. Men came to be so scarce, that is men that were men enough to take their true place as leaders, that a woman had to step into the breach, and assume leadership. But the student of history and of modern times is used to that. The result was great victory, and a forty years’ rest from the nation’s enemies.
A nail or tent-pin, only a wooden peg, in the hands of a woman with a hammer helps to make the enemy’s defeat more decisive. Three hundred young men with pitchers and trumpets completely rout the three armies of three nations, and bring another deliverance. Another time a piece of a millstone shoved over the wall by a woman turns the tide of battle favorably. And as contemptible a thing as the jawbone of an ass in the hands of one strong man is used to slay a thousand men.
Call for Volunteers
It is of one of these, one of the most striking of these, that we are to talk together awhile; the graphic story of Gideon and his band of three hundred young fellows. Things were in bad shape in the nation; about as bad in every way as they could be. This time it was the Midianites who overran the land, and held the leaderless people in most abject slavery. With them were joined two other nations, the Amalekites and the Children of the East. When the crops were almost ready to harvest, these raiders swooped in in great numbers and destroyed all the crops and drove away all the stock.
They harried the Israelites so that life was made very miserable for them. They were forced to flee from their farms and take refuge in caves and dens and the fastnesses among the hills. Then, as usual, when they got into bad shape the people remembered God, and cried for help, and, as usual with Him, He at once forgave them and planned another great deliverance.
First of all Gideon the leader is chosen out, and put through a bit of schooling. That is a fascinating story of great helpfulness. Then this trained young leader gathers his band of helpers. And we want to mark keenly how these three hundred men were sifted out of the thousands for service. They were sifted out. They sifted themselves out. In that army of thousands were just three hundred who had the needed qualifications for the bit of service God wanted done.
Look over the gathered thousands: which are the chosen three hundred? No man knew. They didn’t know themselves until the tests came. They chose themselves out by the way they stood the three tests applied. Even so is God ever sifting out men for service. The more difficult the service, the higher the grade of leadership needed, the severer the test. The testing both reveals the qualities, and in part makes them.
The first quality these men had was willingness. They were all volunteers. When the call came they rallied to the leader’s side. Gideon sent runners, criers, out throughout that whole section. They went first to his own family clan, then to his tribe, then to three neighboring tribes. They said that God had called upon Gideon to lead a movement against the Midianites and their allies and he wanted every man to come and help. The messengers went swiftly through the whole territory of these neighboring tribes, arousing the men to action and calling for volunteers.
A good many did not respond to the summons. Some were simply indifferent. They could not help hearing the call, but there was no response without or within. No change of expression in the eye or face. They went right on in their heavy, dull way as though they hadn’t heard. They were utterly indifferent to the call. Some were reluctant. They stopped and listened, but with a heavy slant backwards to their bodies. Their heels bore most of their weight. It was a good idea to get up such a movement, the enemy ought to be driven back and out, but—but—and their eyes are half shut already.
Some criticised. Who was Gideon? A young upstart! trying to push himself forward as a leader. He had no skill or experience. And the people had no weapons. The enemy had stolen everything of the sort away. And they were clear outnumbered. There wasn’t a ghost of a show. It would only make bad matters worse. This young upstart Gideon would soon be sorry enough when he butted his head against the experienced Midianite leaders. And—and—and—there they are talking, criticising, but not responding to the call. Such critics seldom respond, and helpers criticise in a very different way. It takes less brain to criticise unwisely, captiously, far less than to help. Almost any hare-brain can tear a thing to pieces. And nothing is commoner than just such criticism.
Some ridiculed. “Ha! ha! ha! Gideon going to be national leader; ha! ha! ha! And whip the enemy. Ridiculous! Absurd!” And some were outrightly opposed. They objected. The people would be aroused, their hopes awakened only to be dashed. The whole thing was wrong, for it was impossible. And these men tried to keep others from going.
A Willing People
But many came. A crowd of volunteers came hurrying from farms and caves, bringing such weapons probably as they had been able to keep in hiding. They were willing to respond. It was a motley crowd, no doubt. There were thirty-two thousand of them. These four tribes had once numbered as many as one hundred and eighty-four thousand five hundred fighting men. And at another, later, enumeration they had two hundred and twelve thousand men of war age. Their numbers may be smaller now, though possibly not. It looks as though only a small minority of all had responded, maybe one in six or so.
These men had the first great qualification for service, they were willing. They were actively willing. They willed to come down to the front and help fight the enemy, and deliver their nation. It is a great quality this of being willing. That prophetic One Hundred and Tenth Psalm mentions this as the great characteristic of those who shall rally about God’s King in a coming day of power. God reckons our service not by our ability but by our willingness.
Whatever is given out of a warm, willing heart is eagerly accepted by Him. The Hebrew tabernacle was constructed of free-will offerings. The people came willingly with their offerings and left them for Moses’ use. Some brought gold and silver, some finely woven tapestries and silks. Here was one poor woman who wanted to give but had very little. So she went out to her little flock of goats whereby her living came to her, and cut off a big bunch of goat’s hair, and then with much pains dyed it red.
And then one day she went up to where they were presenting their gifts and timidly laid her bunch of goat’s hair on the pile of offerings, and quietly, quickly slipped away. It seemed very small on that pile of gold and silver and richly-colored weavings. But it was the gift of her heart. They had to have goat’s hair as well as gold. And her offering was acceptable because it came from a willing heart. Willingness is a heart quality. It is the heart volunteering.
“Our wills are ours to make them Thine.” This was the first test. Thirty-two thousand out of four tribes stood this test. Gideon’s army had one great qualification at the start.
Now these men are put to a second test. The next morning God surprised Gideon by telling him that he had too many men. If a victory was given them with so many men they would feel that they had done the thing themselves. They would grow so large as to shut God out of their landscape. There would be no getting along with them. Each man would feel that he was the essential factor. They would go back to the homefolks to tell of themselves. God seems to know us folk down on the earth fairly well.
Now He would lessen their numbers, but in doing it He will pick out the best. The men are encamped on the hillsides overlooking a valley. Across the valley to the north lay the encamped armies of three nations. They were a vast host. They were spread out as thick as the grasshoppers of Egypt had been years before. Everywhere you looked there they were swarming.
Gideon spoke to his men. He said, “Gentlemen, Fellow-Israelites, there is the enemy. Take a good look at them.” And his followers looked, and as they looked some of them began to get scared. They had not realized just what was involved. Their footwear seemed to grow too large. They were shaking in their boots. And their eyes grew big and their faces white under the tan.
Then Gideon said, “Now, every man of you that thinks it can’t be done—I wish you would get right out of this, and go back home.” And he watched. And I imagine even Gideon shook a bit inside as he watched. They commenced to move away in squads, in scores, in fifties. Great gaps were left in the mob of men. Here is a fellow standing, looking. He thinks, “It looks pretty bad, sure enough; but then, I suppose, if God is planning—” hello, the fellow by his side has gone, and on this other side too—“I guess I’d better go too.” And off he goes. Fear is very contagious. There is great power in feeling a man by your side. And two-thirds of them disappear over the hills.
The motto of these disappearing men was this: “It can’t be done.” They must have organized themselves into a society to perpetuate their own idea. If so the society has shown great vitality. Many of its members abide with us until this day. No, probably they didn’t organize. They didn’t have enough gumption to. And such a sentiment grows like a weed without any cultivation.
I recall a certain town in Ohio where I had gone to talk about an enlargement and re-vitalizing of the Young Men’s Christian Association. Thousands of young men in the place needed just such help as that organization is supposed to provide. I outlined the plan to a clergyman. He said it was a good plan, there was great need, the thing should be done, “but,” he said, with an air of settling the thing, “it can’t be done in this town.”
Among others I talked with a business man. He listened attentively, approved the plans, agreed upon the great need, and then settling back in his chair with the same air of finality, used exactly the same words, with the same emphasis, “It can’t be done in this town.” I got that same reply from several men that day. And I said to myself, “They are right; it can’t be done with them; but it can be done without them.” And it was.
But there remained ten thousand. These men by their staying said, “It ought to be done. What ought to be done can be done. What can be done we can do. What we can do we will do.” Here is another man standing looking at that vast host across the valley. He is thinking that it is a desperate case, but he thinks of God’s call through Gideon. Just then he notices that his neighbor on the left has taken to his heels, and on his right also. That shakes him for a moment. His heels say, “You go too.” His heart said, “No, stay.” He obeyed his heart. He said, “I’ll stay if I stay alone.”
That was the stuff in these remaining ten thousand. They stood a double test in remaining, the desperate situation seen in the presence of such an enormous army, and the desertion of their fellows. They had courage; not only willingness but courage. Courage is a heart quality. Courage is the heart fighting. It faces fearful odds and keeps right straight ahead regardless.
A prize was offered once for the best definition of “pluck.” The definition that won the prize said, “Pluck is fighting with the scabbard after the sword is broken.” What a picture in a single sentence! The man is fighting with might and main in the thick of the enemy, up and down, parry and thrust, and just about holding his own, when suddenly, without a moment’s warning, the blade snaps close up to the hilt. The game’s up now surely. This accident decides the day. Maybe—for some men. But not for this fellow. He simply sets his jaws a bit firmer as, quick as lightning, he grabs the scabbard by his side and fights with it.
Such a man can’t be whipped. He doesn’t know when he is whipped. And the man who doesn’t know when he is whipped, never is whipped. No man can be whipped without his own consent. I said courage is a heart quality. These ten thousand were not chicken-hearted nor downhearted. They were lion-hearted, stout-hearted. They had hearts of oak.
It was a keen stroke of generalship on Gideon’s part that sent the timid, discouraged ones back home. Nothing is more demoralizing than the presence of such people. And there was no discipline much finer for those who remained than to feel their fellows leaving them. It’s hard to be left by those who have been in touch. It is hard to stand alone.
There is no harder test of character than that. And too there is no finer thing to make character. Think how the fiber of those ten thousand toughened and strengthened as they stood there, with men on every side hurrying away. This was the second test. But the men who can stand testing are growing fewer. Thirty-two thousand men were willing. Only a third of them are both willing and courageous. These men are more than volunteers. They have seen the foe. Their fiber has stood the test, and toughened in the test. They are courageous volunteers.
But there is a third test. God comes to Gideon and says, “You have too many men yet, Gideon.” And Gideon’s eyes bulge out a bit. Too many! Yes, this is to be a quality fight. No common fighting here. God works best with the men who come nearest to having His own thought of things. Numbers don’t count. You can’t count men for service. You must weigh them, and feel the firmness of their fiber.
There is a little running brook down the valley. Gideon gives an order to his men to advance a bit. And he watches them. Most of them as they come to the water stretch out leisurely on the ground and putting their mouths to the water take a good long drink, and another, and again. They seem to say by their action, “Well, there’s some tough work ahead, but we must take care of ourselves. A man must look out for number one. We must not get unduly stirred up over the thing. We’re not fighting yet.”
But one fellow comes along with a quick, nervous step, and his eye still on the enemy. He is all on tenter-hooks. His eye flashes fire. He reaches down with a quick movement and gathers up some water in his hand, up to his mouth, and hurries on. Then a second fellow, and a third, and more. Gideon is watching. As each of these comes along he calls him off to one side. When the whole number of men have passed the brook there are just three hundred of the hot-hearted, intense-spirited fellows.
God said, “Gideon, keep these men; send the others back.” These thousands sent back were sturdy men. They would make good fighters in many a campaign, but they would not do for this higher kind of campaigning planned for that day. The little band remaining had stood a third test, they were willing, and courageous, and enthusiastic.
Enthusiasm is the heart burning. These fellows had spring and snap to them. Yet it was a tempered spring and snap, the sort that would last. By their action at the brook they said, “If there’s fighting to be done, let’s do it quickly; let’s go at the enemy with a vim and a rush. Oh! let us at them.”
God Still Sifting
Yet, mark you, their enthusiasm was seasoned. It grew under fire, or practically so, in the presence of the danger. There is always an abundance of the green article of enthusiasm, but it’s not worth much for steady ditch-work. There is a sort of wood enthusiasm, apple-wood. You know how apple-wood burns in a fire. It catches quickly, throws out a good many sparks, makes a loud crackling noise, but doesn’t last long.
There is another sort, a soft-coal enthusiasm. It’s better than wood. But it needs a lot of attention continually to keep a steady fire. Then there’s the hard-coal enthusiasm that will burn steadily and faithfully by the hour. Yet no kind, mark you, will run long without fresh fuel. We need in our service more of the seasoned enthusiasm.
It has been said of General Grant that one great reason for his success as a soldier was in his coolness. While the fighting and firing were hottest he sat on his horse quietly, coolly watching, listening, and giving his orders. And much of his power has been attributed to that quality. Well, if coolness is a qualification for success in Christian service there seems to be a large number of persons splendidly qualified. They are cool all the time; cool as icebergs at the North Pole; cool from the topmost layer of hair to the bottommost cuticle—about certain things.
We want coolness of head such as General Grant had and hotness of heart such as he had, too. The ideal combination is a cool head and a hot heart. The head should resemble a refrigerator, and the heart a flaming furnace. There is one bother, however, among many people. Either the coolness of the head works down too much and affects the heart, and that is bad, or, else the heat of the heart gets up into the head, and a hot head is always bad.
Yet there is a sure key to preserving the poise between the two. It is in the quiet time daily with Jesus, over the Book, with the knee bent, and the ear keen, and the spirit quiet. In that time there comes, and comes ever more, the calmness for the brain, and the fresh fuel for the heart, and new steadiness for the will that holds all under its strong hand.
Many difficulties will yield only to fire. When you cannot reason your way through a problem, or a difficulty, or into a man’s heart, burn your way through. Nothing can withstand fire. It is very remarkable that the symbol used most for God in the Bible is fire. A man never amounts to anything until he catches fire.
The proportions are worth noticing here. Thirty-two thousand were volunteers. A third of that number are courageous volunteers. About a thirty-third of these, less than a hundredth of the original, are hot-hearted, courageous volunteers.
This is Gideon’s Band; three hundred young men fresh from the farm, who were willing, and courageous, and hot-hearted, all heart qualities. They stood every test. They had faced a foe that humanly they had no chance to overcome, and because of God’s call they were not only willing, and stout-hearted, but intense in their desire to get at the fighting.
Then under Gideon’s leadership they were well fed, and organized; they proved individually faithful in the thick of the fight, and they pushed persistently on even when bodily tired out. And the nation knew a great victory over its enemies, and a time of prosperity for years after.
God is still sifting men for service. He will use gladly every man who is willing to be used. When a man stands the first test well, there comes a second. That, stood well, means others. These are our promotion tests. He lets those who stand all testings into the thickest of the fight and up to the highest heights of victory.
Master, help us to endure every test as seeing Him who is invisible.