We rightly call ourselves the Church Militant. As long as we live in this world we fight against the devil, world, and sinful nature. So what, right now, does the Church need in order to succeed against these enemies? There’s a certain harmful assumption that pervades much of American Christianity, apparent from practice if not from open confession, that we need lots of people. We Christians need a majority in the world in order to make the world conform to Christian values. We Christians need many people in our congregations in order to survive.
If I seem to be making too broad a statement, applying to many what is only true of some, simply consider the opposite. What creates the most fear and dread within congregations? Is it not a lack of people? And as we Christians see the way of the world around us and hear an increasingly hostile tone against us, do we not long for bygone days when many people were at least nominally Christian and we didn’t feel like such a minority? And then, in lieu of actually being able to increase numbers, various church bodies and parachurch groups turn to statistical reports. If we can’t have a bunch of people, we can at least take solace in knowing we don’t have it as bad as that church body over there.
Yet the success of the Church is not in her numbers. The battle belongs to the Lord, and not to the statistics. The Lord shows this to us again and again in Scripture, and one of the greatest instances of this point is the battle against Midian.
The Midianites had come up against Israel with massive numbers of troops and animals and were ravaging the country. The Lord had appeared to Gideon and said, “Go in this your strength, and save Israel from the palm of Midian” (Judg. 6:14). Gideon tried arguing that he was of a low clan and that he was weakest in his father’s house. But the Lord did not change his mind, because these things were ultimately no hindrance to him. The Lord was sending Gideon to save Israel, and so save Israel he would.
33 And all Midian and Amalek and the sons of the east assembled together, and they passed over and encamped in the valley of Jezreel. 34 And the Spirit of Yahweh clothed Gideon, and he blew on the horn, and Abiezer was called together after him. 35 And he sent messengers into all Manasseh, and he also was called together after him. And he sent messengers into Asher and into Zebulun and into Naphtali, and they came up to meet them.
The allied army of Midian was massive, numbering some 135,000 fighting men (cf. Judg. 8:10). Now the Spirit of the Lord clothes Gideon, and for a very interesting purpose. When the Spirit of the Lord clothes Gideon, Gideon sounds the horn and summons his clan, the Abiezrites (Abiezer was the great-grandson of Manasseh son of Joseph). Then he summons his whole tribe of Manasseh. Then he summons three other tribes to the north, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. The men come and assemble, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit through Gideon, as Judges 6:34 makes clear. The Holy Spirit gathers a large army of Israelites. Now Gideon has numbers, and, statistically speaking, stands on better footing for a battle. The Holy Spirit has given him these large numbers of people.
Yet the number of fighting men isn’t big enough for Gideon to trust in that number. He now has 32,000 troops, less than a quarter of what the enemy has (cf. Judg. 7:3). The simple fact is, no matter the number of people the Holy Spirit gathers, that number will never be enough for us to be able to trust it. Gideon has a congregation of 32,000 of God’s people, and he fears that it won’t be enough to overcome the enemy’s 135,000.
36 And Gideon said to God, “If you are saving Israel by my hand, just as you have said, 37 behold, I am placing a fleece of wool on the threshing floor: if there is dew on the fleece alone, and on all the ground dryness, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, just as you have said.” 38 And thus it happened: he rose early the next day and squeezed the fleece, and wrung out dew from the fleece, a bowl full of water. 39 And Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me, but let me speak once more. Let me test only once more with the fleece: let there be dryness on the fleece alone, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40 And thus Yahweh did during that night, and there was dryness on the fleece alone, and on all the ground there was dew.
The only time a reading from Judges appears in our lectionaries (both the Historic and the Three Year) is on the Feast of St. Thomas. These verses, Judges 6:36-40, are paired with John 20:24-29. There is considerable similarity between Gideon and Thomas. Both desire to see something that will confirm the Lord’s Word. In both cases the Lord grants the sign they request. In both cases, the sign requested does nothing to strengthen faith.
Gideon asks for wet fleece and dry ground, then dry fleece and wet ground, and the Lord does according to his requests. Still, Gideon is no closer to being certain of victory, which we see as the reading continues. Thomas says that he won’t believe unless he sees the marks in Jesus flesh and puts his fingers and hand in those marks. When Jesus appears, he invites Thomas to put his finger in the nail holes and his hand in the mark of the spear, and Thomas simply answers “My Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28). The Lord was willing to grant Thomas what he wanted, and Thomas apparently didn’t even do it. He believed apart from what he thought he needed in order to believe, apart from putting his fingers and hand into Jesus’ wounds.
Thus we see that not only are numbers an unreliable foundation for faith, so also is any other sign we devise from ourselves. We might come up with the most pious-sounding criteria for judging whether we have the Lord’s favor or not, but if we are the ones who invented those criteria, they will not aid faith in the least.
7:1 And Jerubbaal, that is, Gideon, rose early, along with all the people who were with him, and they encamped by the spring of Harod. And the camp of Midian was north of him, by the hill of Moreh in the valley. 2 And Yahweh said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for me to give Midian into your hand, lest Israel glorify himself over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ 3 So now, call into the ears of the people saying, ‘Who is afraid or anxious? Let him turn and depart early from Mount Gilead.’” And there turned from the people twenty-two thousand, and ten thousand were left. 4 And Yahweh said to Gideon, “Still the people are many. Bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. And it shall be that he of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall go with you,’ he shall go with you, and everyone of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” 5 And he brought the people down to the water. And Yahweh said to Gideon, “Everyone who laps with his tongue from the water, as the dog laps, you shall set by himself, and [likewise] everyone who bows on his knees to drink.” 6 And the number of those who lapped with their hand to their mouth was three hundred men, and all the rest of the people bowed on their knees to drink water. 7 And Yahweh said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men who lapped I will save you, and I will give Midian into your hand. And let all the [other] people go, each man to his place.” 8 And the people took provision in their hand, and their horns. And all the [other] men of Israel he sent, each man to his tent, but the three hundred men he retained. And the camp of Midian was below him in the valley.
Here the Lord shows why the Holy Spirit mustered the Israelite troops: he gathered a great number of people in order to show that he didn’t need them. Indeed, the Lord considers that having a great number of soldiers would be harmful to his people in this battle. If Israel had a numerical advantage, or even a reasonable enough number to be a powerful underdog, then he would trust the wrong thing. After the battle was won, Israel would credit victory to his own numbers rather than to the Lord. And so the Lord will not let Israel have the numerical advantage. He won’t even let them have 32,000 against 135,000. He makes Israel’s statistics astonishingly dismal. He reduces Israel’s army to a mere 300 men.
First, the Lord lets everyone who is afraid depart for home. There goes two thirds of the army, but at least they have brave men left. But lest Israel trust the bravery of those who remain, the Lord reduces their number further, choosing men not based on their strength or valor, but based on a variable completely unrelated to warfare: how the men drink water. And then he chooses the men who resemble dogs in their drinking. The Lord gives Israel an army that is 0.2% the size of the enemy army. A mere 300 Israelites will take on 135,000 Midianites.
The Israelites don’t have numbers on their side. But they don’t need numbers. They have the Lord. His Word is on their side. The Lord has said that Gideon will save Israel from the palm of Midian, and so that’s how it’s going to be.
We Christians take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather he turn from his way and live (Ezek. 33:11). We would gladly have every person on earth numbered among the saints. But if the number of the saints is few, that says nothing about the life of the Church. So long as we have the pure Word of God with us, we have faith’s foundation and everything we need as the Church Militant.