T HE people of Israel were in sore distress. Their smiling land, that land "flowing with milk and honey," was laid waste, they were robbed of their harvests, and they went in terror of their lives. The fierce Midianite robbers had come swarming from the east like a cloud of locusts, and just as locusts devour the green, good land, so these Midianites had overrun the country and devoured everything which their greedy eyes desired and their powerful hands could grasp.
The people who lived in the quiet valleys and plains had fled to the hills for safety, leaving their cornfields and vineyards, and seeking shelter in caves and rocky dens. They dared not try to fight the robbers, for the Midianites far outnumbered them. It was a reign of red terror, as if hungry wolves had come to menace the peaceful land.
There was one man, however, who had not fled before the enemy and who kept on steadily at his work, reaping his corn and gathering in his grapes. This was Gideon, a young landowner who looked after his father's land. He was the youngest of a family of brothers, all of them so tall and straight and strong and good to look at that they might have been the sons of a king.
But of all these brothers Gideon alone was now left. The others had all been killed by the fierce robbers who had invaded the land, and it was his part now to defend the home and carry on the work. He never dreamed of running away and leaving his fair cornfields and terraced vineyards to fall into the greedy, grasping hands of the wolfish enemy. The Midianite robbers would not find him an easy prey when they came. Still he worked cautiously, and when the harvest was gathered in he hid it in a secret cave which he had prepared.
It was a bitter thing to live always in fear of the enemy, and Gideon almost felt as if God had forsaken His people. He knew what wonderful things God had done in the past years, when the people of Israel had escaped from Egyptian slavery: how He had made a passage for them through the Red Sea, and broken down the walls of Jericho before them, and led them into the flowery land of peace and plenty. But why, then, did He work no wonders now, and free them from this dreadful tyranny?
He was thinking these thoughts one day as he toiled near the grove of trees which grew just above his vineyard, when he looked up and saw some one there, sitting under an oak tree. It was a friend and not a foe, for the greeting fell gently on his ear, "The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour."
Was it a message from God? Perhaps this was an angel messenger, but Gideon answered bitterly, for he did not think that God was with him.
"If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us?" he asked. "Where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? But now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites."
Quickly then the angel's answer came. It was he, Gideon, who was to show the people that God could still work miracles and that He had not forsaken His people. It was he who should lead them to victory and drive forth the robbers out of the land.
It was a splendid call to arms, and Gideon answered it at once as a soldier obeys the call of his king.
The Call of Gideon
But before fighting the foe there was evil at home to be battled with. The people had been worshipping a false god, and Gideon's first act was to sweep away all that belonged to that false worship. The indignant people talked of punishment, but even while they spoke news came that more of the robber nations were on their way to harry the land, and this was Gideon's opportunity. Splendid in his youth and strength, king-like in his daring, he stood out before the people and blew a great blast upon his trumpet, calling upon the people to gather themselves together for the defence of their land and to follow him, their captain.
It was a bold thing to think of withstanding that great army which was coming thundering upon its relentless way. Gideon himself knew that it was a forlorn hope unless God was surely on their side. He must make quite certain of that before setting out, so he humbly prayed that God would give him a sign. He would put a fleece of wool out on the ground at night, and if in the morning the fleece was wet with dew while the ground around was dry, then he would know that God had indeed chosen him to lead His people to victory.
The fleece was laid out, and when Gideon came in the morning he found it all soaked with dew, while not a drop had fallen upon the dry hard ground around. Still he wanted to be even more sure, and so again he prayed to God, and asked that this time the fleece might be dry and the dew fall only upon the ground. If this happened he would ask for no other sign, but would believe with all his heart.
Again God listened patiently to His soldier servant, and again He granted his prayer. This time, when in the early morning Gideon went out to find his fleece, it was lying there quite dry, while everything around was heavy with dew.
So now with every doubt at rest Gideon set to work to prepare for battle. The people had answered his trumpet call and had gathered together in thousands; but many of them had come in fear and trembling, and Gideon wanted no cowards or half-hearted men in his army. God was able to save by many or by few, and He meant to show that it was by His arm that the victory would be won. So He bade Gideon tell all the faint-hearted and frightened men to return to their hiding-places, and all the unfit ones to go home, and at last the army melted away until only three hundred picked men were left to fight the great armies of the Midianites and the Amalekites.
The little army took up its position secretly upon a hill which overlooked the plain where the enemy was encamped; and when night came down and wrapped hill and plain in darkness, God's message came to Gideon and bade him go down secretly, taking his servant with him, to find out what was happening in the camp below.
The vast plain was covered with tents; thousands and thousands of camels, on which the robbers had come riding so proudly, were resting there now like a great gray sea stretched out towards the horizon. It seemed as hopeless to think of turning back this great swarm of people as of stopping the incoming tide. But there was no doubt or fear in Gideon's heart.
Very silently in the darkness of the night he stole down the hill and crept closer and closer to the enemy camp. Like two gray shadows he and his faithful servant drew nearer and nearer, until at last they could hear the voices of two men who were talking in one of the dark tents set at the outer edge of the great camp.
The men had both been asleep, and one had been dreaming, but the dreamer had awakened his companion to listen to the frightening dream which had disturbed him. Gideon could distinctly hear his terror-stricken voice telling how he had seen a cake of barley bread come rolling down the hill into the camp, where nothing could stop it, until it even reached the royal tent and laid it flat. The man who listened to the dream was terrified too, and declared that it meant the overthrow of their people by the sword of Gideon, that man of Israel who dwelt on the hillside and had defied them.
Gideon had heard enough; and so, as silently as they had come, the two shadows flitted back and climbed up the hill to their camp. There was no time to be lost. Before the enemy could regain confidence the blow must be struck. Gideon had everything planned for the attack, and now he explained to his men exactly what they were to do.
Each man was to carry in one hand his trumpet, and in the other an
empty earthen pitcher with a lighted torch inside. They were to carry
these pitchers so that no gleam of light should show, and were to creep
quietly down to the edge of the enemies' camp below. Then, when they
were all come close to the camp Gideon would blow his trumpet, and at
that signal all those three hundred men were to blow their trumpets
too and break the pitchers which they held in their hands, so that the
light of the torches should suddenly blaze out. There was only one more
order to give, and that was to tell them the battle cry which was to
carry them on to
"The sword of the Lord and of Gideon."
Swiftly, then, those three hundred picked men crept down the hill. No mountain mist rolling into the valley could have moved more silently, and not a gleam from the hidden torches lit up the darkness.
There was silence in the great camp below. Sentries had just been changed, and the rest of the army was peacefully sleeping—when suddenly one long clear trumpet call shattered the stillness like the thrust of a spear piercing a solid wall of blackness. Instantly a wild blare of answering trumpets broke in from every side, and the darkness was lit up by hundreds of flaring torches, while a mighty shout rose up to heaven: "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon."
"They blew the trumpets, and brake the pitchers that were in their hands."
No wonder the enemy in their surprise and terror thought that a great army was upon them. It seemed as if the very night itself was full of fire and crashing sound. They rushed from their tents, they fled this way and that, not knowing friend from foe, but madly hacking their way with their swords in blind terror.
It was a great victory for the Israelites. Both the robber kings were taken and slain, and the people who survived that terrible stampede were driven back into their own land.
Who now in all the land was as great a hero as the brave young captain, the victorious Gideon? The people in their gratitude and devotion were ready to pay him any honour, even to making him their king.
"Rule thou over us," they shouted, "both thou, and thy son, and thy son's son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian."
But Gideon would have none of this. It was to God that the glory was due, and God was their King.
"I will not rule over you," he declared, "neither shall my son rule over you."
And then, like the trumpet call in the great battle, his voice rang out: "The Lord, He shall rule over you."