Idols are nothing but wood and stone, gold and silver, and the vain imaginings of men’s hearts. “We know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no God except one,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:4. The Lord decries idols through Jeremiah: “they are like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they must certainly be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it with them to do good” (Jer. 10:5). Walk up to an idol and slap it, spit on it, draw a pair of glasses, a mustache, and a goatee on its idiotic face, and what’s it going to do? Absolutely nothing, because an idol is nothing.
But idols have worshipers. The worshipers of idols tenaciously defend their idols, because their idols do nothing to defend them. You see, there is no true trust in an idol, no security. Idol-worshipers get no comfort from their manufactured gods, no forgiveness, no life, no salvation. The idol is idle: it not only is nothing but it does nothing. Its suppliants, meanwhile, become slaves to a never-ending flurry of dehumanizing activity. Thus the idol has nothing to offer, and those who worship it lead vain lives. This makes idolaters extremely unstable, angry, and violent, especially toward those who have the true God and expose their false god.
The devil is the one who leads idolaters in their idol worship. The idol itself is nothing, and the devil has no power to give it being. But he can turn an idol into an opportunity for instilling false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Such was the unfortunate case with the false god Baal.
Previously in Judges 6 the angel of the Lord (who was the Lord himself) appeared to Gideon and promised to deliver the Israelites through him. The Lord also began instructing Gideon in right worship – instruction that Gideon should have received from his father, who, unfortunately, paid lip service to God and but sacrificed to Baal. You can read more about the previous section of Judges here.
25 And the same night it happened that Yahweh said to him, “Take the young bull which your father has, that is, the second bull, seven years old. And you shall tear down the altar of Baal which your father has, and the Asherah which is by it you shall cut off. 26 And you shall build an altar to Yahweh your God on the top of this stronghold in proper order. And you shall take the second bull and offer it up as a whole burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you have cut down.” 27 And Gideon took ten men from among his servants and did just as Yahweh had spoken to him. And it happened, as he feared his father’s house and the men of the city to act by day, that he did it by night.
The Lord had appeared to Gideon earlier in the day and accepted an offering from him on a rock. That night Lord gave further instructions to Gideon concerning right worship. He had Gideon build an altar in “proper order.” The Hebrew word translated “proper order” can be used in a military sense to refer to the battle line (1 Sam. 4:12) or the ranks of an army (1 Sam. 17:10). In Exodus 39:37 the word refers to the lamps being set in order in the tabernacle.
Concerning the erection of altars, the Lord had given instructions in Exodus 20: “An altar of earth you shall build for me, and you shall sacrifice upon it your whole burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. In every place where I cause remembrance of my name, I will come to you and I will bless you. And if you make for me an altar of stones, you shall not build it of hewn stone, for if you wield your blade upon it you profane it. And you shall not go up to the altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be uncovered on it” (Ex. 20:24-26). This is the “proper order” of altar building. Either Gideon knew these instructions (which seems unlikely), or the Lord gave him more details than we have recorded in the book of Judges. For another example of altar building, see 1 Kings 18:30-32.
In a time when the Israelites are struggling to get their daily bread, the Lord commands Gideon to slaughter a bull. The Lord is not requiring sacrifice the way that Baal does as a means of divine appeasement. The Lord is requiring faith in his Word. We see something similar with Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. The widow was gathering a few sticks so that she could bake the last of her flour and oil into bread, eat it with her son, and die. Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid. Go; do according to your word. Only make for me from there a small loaf first and bring it to me, and for yourself and for your son make afterwards. For thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel: the jar of flour will not be spent and the jug of oil will not lack until the day when Yahweh gives rain upon the face of the ground” (1 Kgs. 17:13-14).
Elijah was not requiring the widow to appease him with food. He was stirring up faith in God’s Word by leaving her with nothing but the Word. She went and did according to Elijah’s word, and the jar and jug were not spent according to the Lord’s Word. So also here, Gideon does not sacrifice in order to get a gracious God. He sacrifices because the Word has come to him that he has a gracious God who is saving Israel from his enemies: Yahweh has called himself “your God,” which is the great gift included in the First Commandment (see Large Catechism, I.4, 15).
It is notable how contemptuously the Lord treats Baal and Asherah. There’s some irony in that the bull was a symbol of Baal, and now an actual bull proves stronger than the supposed god he represents and throws him to the ground. Some god he is, who is torn down by something that’s supposed to serve his worship.
And then with the Asherah, the Lord does not say, “The wood of the Asherah is defiled by its association with idols. Do not bring it near and profane my altar.” No, he claims the wood of the idol as his own, fit for his own use. The Lord made that wood, and he will do with it as he pleases. The people or Israel feared and loved Asherah. The Lord turns her into kindling. The people of Israel sacrificed to that wood. The Lord now uses that wood in right sacrifice. The false god burns to the true One, and the Lord shows who is really God.
It is significant that the deliverance of Israel from the Midianites begins with the destruction of idols and the reinstatement of true worship. Before the Lord gives any word about mustering men or taking up arms, he has Gideon build an altar and offer right sacrifice. We learn from this that there is no salvation where an idol is worshiped instead of the one true God. Related to this, and more importantly, we see that God does not want to save his people apart from the sacrifice of his Son, to whom the sacrifice of the bull pointed (and, conversely, the sacrifices to Baal did not point). It is not because Gideon followed the right steps, like casting a spell, that the Lord is going to save his people. It is because Christ would come and dethrone idols and die on the cross that the Lord is going to save his people. This is why proper worship was and is so important: the proper worship of God points people to the Son of God, the Savior, and makes them recipients of his benefits. Gideon trusted this Savior and he trusted God’s promises, as the writer of Hebrews makes clear in Hebrews 11:32.
Gideon is not afraid of Baal or Asherah. He tears Baal down without fearing his wrath. He burns Asherah without dread of her revenge. Gideon knows that the idols are nothing. But he also knows that idols have unstable, angry, and violent worshipers. Gideon is afraid of what the idolaters – including his own father – will do to him. Gideon has faith like a tiny mustard seed, and he is still afraid. The strengthening of Gideon’s faith happens little by little leading up to the battle with the Midianites. Yet ultimately faith is not about strength or quantity, but about its object. Faith means trust in someone or something, and if the object of faith is right – if faith trusts in the Word of the Lord – then, as Jesus says, “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20). Gideon may have weak faith, but it is right faith; he believes what the Lord has spoken to him and he trusts the promised Savior, of whom the Lord is making him a type.
28 And the men of the city rose early in the morning, and behold, the altar of Baal was torn down, and the Asherah which was by it was cut down, and the second bull was offered up on the altar that was built. 29 And they said, each man to his neighbor, “Who has done this thing?” And they searched and sought and said, “Gideon son of Joash has done this thing.” 30 And the men of the city said to Joash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, because he has torn down the altar of Baal, and because he cut down the Asherah which was by it.”
When a false god is seen as the impotent nothing that it really is, its worshipers call for the blood of the one who exposed their god’s futility and weakness. The inhabitants of Gideon’s city somehow thought that by killing him Baal would appear to be strong again. The chief priests and scribes and others called for Jesus’ death supposing that if he were dead, then all the holes he showed in their false worship would somehow heal. To this day the world persecutes Christians in the vain hope that the truth will die with us. In short, idolaters always lash out at those who cast down their idol. But they always do so without gaining anything.
31 And Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? He who will contend for him, let him die while it is still morning. If he is god, let him contend for himself, because he tore down his altar.” 32 And they called him on that day Jerubbaal, saying, “Let Baal contend against him, because he tore down his altar.”
Joash’s speech is very much like Gamaliel’s in Acts 5:34-39, in which Gamaliel urges the Sanhedrin not to do anything against the apostles. Insurrectionists have come and gone, and their followers have scattered; therefore, if the apostles were miscreants the same would happen to them and their movement. “But if it is from God,” Gamaliel says, “you will not be able to destroy them, lest you even be found fighting God.”
Similarly, Joash argues that the matter should be left to god, albeit a false god. If Baal is indeed god, he can take care of himself. Whoever thinks that god depends on him, let that man be put to death! Joash is likely motivated by fatherly concern for his son. At the same time, he exposes the absurdity of idolatry. The idolater firmly believes that his god’s reputation and glory rests with him, as Demetrius the silversmith is concerned in Acts 19:27 about the magnificence of Artemis without stopping to think that if Artemis really is a goddess, she can see to her own magnificence. The idolater may bow down to an idol, but in truth, the idolater inevitably ends up thinking that he is god: he is responsible for the good name of the divinity, which is really his own name.
But see what freedom we Christians have? Our God actually does take care of himself, and sanctifies his holy name, and sees to us as well. He doesn’t need us to vindicate him or plead his cause, as if he were some weakling in need of a strong man to come to his aid. He’s the strong man, and we’re the weaklings! He takes care of us, not the other way around, thanks be to God.
The men of the city gave Gideon the name Jerubbaal: “Let Baal contend.” They cursed him by their false god, which did about as much as when Goliath cursed David by his gods (1 Sam. 17:43). An idol is nothing, and therefore being cursed by one is nothing.
“Cast ev’ry idol from its throne, For God is God, and He alone: To God all praise and glory!” (LSB 819:5).