“And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me. Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.” (Judges 7:2-3)
Convinced that God wanted him to lead Israel against the Midianites, Gideon had sent messengers to Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali, and Zebulon asking for volunteers. Only thirty two thousand showed up to fight over a hundred thirty five thousand Midianites. Already outnumbered by more than four to one, it must have been troubling when God said you’ve got too many soldiers.
God was concerned that they realize the victory was only possible because of God’s power. After all, it is not impossible to defeat larger army if one uses better tactics or has better weapons. History records many such cases. God wanted people to depend on him rather than their own power. It was necessary to eliminate any possibility of them winning on their own to teach them.
In Deuteronomy 20, God had given a number of conditions under which a man was not to be sent to war. One of those was fear. Deuteronomy 20:8 commands, “And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart.” When Gideon followed that command, twenty two thousand, over two thirds of the volunteers went home, unsure that God would give the victory.
“And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.” (Judges 7:4)
Now they were outnumbered by nearly fourteen to one and God said they still had too many. I wonder how many times God has said you have too many and allowed our efforts to produce change to fail because we were focused on human numbers rather than the power of God? God would set the standard for dividing them up.
“So he brought down the people unto the water: and the LORD said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink. And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water.
And the LORD said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place. So the people took victuals in their hand, and their trumpets: and he sent all the rest of Israel every man unto his tent, and retained those three hundred men: and the host of Midian was beneath him in the valley.” (Judges 7:5-8)
Out of the ten thousand that believed God would give the victory and were willing to take action, only three hundred met God’s criteria. All the others were sent home. God did not need the crowd to win the victory. Jonathan clearly understood this in I Samuel 14:6, when he said, “…Come, and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised: it may be that the LORD will work for us: for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few.”
His father, Saul was more like most religious leaders today, believing that the victory would be enhanced by having a larger crowd. Like many today, he ignored the standards God had set to get a bigger crowd, replacing them with his own standards. Too often today, salvation, biblical doctrine or moral standards are compromised and replaced with some religious standard of activity. Though the results are blamed on God, they are the fruit of man’s efforts, producing no significant benefit.