Past Success Doesn’t Ensure the Future (Judges 8) - God’s Word for Work, Online Video Bible Study

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Past Success Doesn’t Ensure the Future (Judges 8)

Agenda

1. Leader gathers the group in an online meeting.

2. Leader shares screen and audio.

3. Leader plays video. The video includes:

4. Leader pauses the video and the group discusses the readings.

5. Leader resumes the video with the closing prayer.

Opening Prayer

God, we invite you to speak to us through the Bible today. Show us what your word means for our work. Amen.

Bible reading: Judges 8

Now the men of Ephraim said to him, “Why have you done this to us by not calling us when you went to fight with the Midianites?” And they reprimanded him sharply.

So he said to them, “What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? God has delivered into your hands the princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb. And what was I able to do in comparison with you?” Then their anger toward him subsided when he said that.

When Gideon came to the Jordan, he and the three hundred men who were with him crossed over, exhausted but still in pursuit. Then he said to the men of Succoth, “Please give loaves of bread to the people who follow me, for they are exhausted, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, kings of Midian.”

And the leaders of Succoth said, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?”

So Gideon said, “For this cause, when the Lord has delivered Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, then I will tear your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers!” Then he went up from there to Penuel and spoke to them in the same way. And the men of Penuel answered him as the men of Succoth had answered. So he also spoke to the men of Penuel, saying, “When I come back in peace, I will tear down this tower!”

Now Zebah and Zalmunna were at Karkor, and their armies with them, about fifteen thousand, all who were left of all the army of the people of the East; for one hundred and twenty thousand men who drew the sword had fallen. Then Gideon went up by the road of those who dwell in tents on the east of Nobah and Jogbehah; and he attacked the army while the camp felt secure. When Zebah and Zalmunna fled, he pursued them; and he took the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and routed the whole army.

Then Gideon the son of Joash returned from battle, from the Ascent of Heres. And he caught a young man of the men of Succoth and interrogated him; and he wrote down for him the leaders of Succoth and its elders, seventy-seven men. Then he came to the men of Succoth and said, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you ridiculed me, saying, ‘Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your weary men?’ ” And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth. Then he tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city.

And he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “What kind of men were they whom you killed at Tabor?”

So they answered, “As you are, so were they; each one resembled the son of a king.”

Then he said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the Lord lives, if you had let them live, I would not kill you.” And he said to Jether his firstborn, “Rise, kill them!” But the youth would not draw his sword; for he was afraid, because he was still a youth.

So Zebah and Zalmunna said, “Rise yourself, and kill us; for as a man is, so is his strength.” So Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and took the crescent ornaments that were on their camels’ necks.

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.”

But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” Then Gideon said to them, “I would like to make a request of you, that each of you would give me the earrings from his plunder.” For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.

So they answered, “We will gladly give them.” And they spread out a garment, and each man threw into it the earrings from his plunder. Now the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments, pendants, and purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the chains that were around their camels’ necks. Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house.

Thus Midian was subdued before the children of Israel, so that they lifted their heads no more. And the country was quiet for forty years in the days of Gideon.

Then Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and dwelt in his own house. Gideon had seventy sons who were his own offspring, for he had many wives. And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, whose name he called Abimelech. Now Gideon the son of Joash died at a good old age, and was buried in the tomb of Joash his father, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god. Thus the children of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; nor did they show kindness to the house of Jerubbaal (Gideon) in accordance with the good he had done for Israel.

Excerpts from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary: Past Success Doesn’t Ensure the Future - Gideon’s Ambivalent Leadership

Gideon is a prime example of the paradoxical character of Israel’s leaders in the time of judges, and the ambivalent lessons they offer for the workplace today. Gideon’s name literally means “hacker.” This has a positive meaning when he hacks up his father’s idols in Judges 6, but the fact that he does this at night, out of fear, points to the ongoing contradictions in his character. 

The remainder of Gideon’s story is equally two-sided. The high point of this tale is, of course, Gideon’s astonishing triumph over the Midianites in Judges 7. Less well known are his subsequent failures of leadership in Judges 8. The inhabitants of Succoth and Penuel refused to help his men after the battle, and his brutal destruction of those cities might strike some as disproportionate to the offense. Gideon was again living up to his name, but in this case he hacked down anyone who dared to cross him. Despite his protestations that he did not want to be king, he became a despot in all but name. Even more troubling is Gideon’s subsequent fall into idolatry. The ephod he makes becomes a “snare” for his people, and “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there” (Judges 8:27). How the mighty are fallen!

A lesson for us today may be to find gratitude for the gifts of great people without idolizing them. Like Gideon, a general today may lead us to victory in war, yet prove a tyrant in peace. A genius may bring us sublime insight in music or film, yet lead us astray in parenting or politics. A business leader may rescue a business in crisis, only to destroy it in times of ease. 

We may even find the same discontinuities within ourselves. Perhaps we rise in the ranks at work while sinking into discord at home, or vice versa. Maybe we prove capable as individual performers but fail as managers. Most likely of all, perhaps, we accomplish much good when, unsure of ourselves, we depend on God, but wreak havoc when success leads us to self-reliance. Like the judges, we are people of contradiction and frailty. Our only hope, or else despair, is the forgiveness and transformation made possible for us in Christ.

Gideon’s failures are intensified in the judges who follow him. Gideon’s son Abimelech unites the people around him, but only by killing his seventy brothers standing in his way. Jephthah starts as a brigand, goes on to deliver the people from the Ammonites, but destroys his own family and future with a dreadful vow that leads to the death of his daughter. The most famous of the judges, Samson, wreaks havoc amongst the Philistines, but infamously succumbs to the seductions of the pagan Delilah to his own ruin.

What are we to make of all this for our work in today’s world? First of all, the stories of the judges affirm the truth that God works through broken people. This is surely true, for a number of the judges—Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah— are praised in the New Testament, along with Rahab (see Hebrews 11:31-34). The book of Judges does not hesitate to point out that the Spirit of God empowered them to bring about mighty acts of deliverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Furthermore they were more than instruments in God’s hand. They responded positively towards God’s call to deliver the nation, and through them God delivered his people again and again.

Yet the overall tenor of Judges does not encourage us to make these men into role models. The burden of the book is that the nation is a mess, awash in compromise, and its leaders are a disappointment in their disobedience of God’s covenant. A more appropriate lesson to draw might be that success– even God-given success – is not necessarily a pronouncement of God’s favor. When our efforts in the workplace are blessed, especially in the face of adverse circumstances, it is tempting to reason, “Well, God obviously has his hand in this, so he must be rewarding me for being a good person.” But the history of the judges shows that God works when he wishes, and how he wishes, and through whom he wishes. He acts according to his plans, not according to our merit or lack thereof. We cannot take credit as if we deserved the blessings of success. Likewise, we cannot stand in judgment ourselves over those whom we deem less deserving of God’s favor, whether they be our coworkers or our leaders.

Group Discussion

  • How does what you heard apply to your work?

Closing Prayer

God, thank you for being present with us today. Please stay with us in our work, wherever we go. Amen.