putting out a fleece

Know Your God

Know your God: the Fleece.

This is probably the best known and most frequently applied story in the whole of the account of Gideon. But how well do we know it? This is the entire chapter from Wheat in the Winepress on the story of the fleece, which suggests that maybe we could look at it from a different angle. Enjoy, and I hope you find it useful.

Gideon had met with God, but at this point did not know Him. It is those who know their God who do exploits. The fleece does not show us what to do, but who we are in Christ: filled with the Spirit, and set apart.

The enemy has gathered; they have set up camp in the Valley. Gideon has raised his army: Manasseh, Naphtali, Asher and Zebulun are all behind him. The signal to go into battle – the trumpet – has sounded. Gideon felt the Spirit of the Lord come upon him before he blew the horn, so why wait any longer? The enemy could start their advance any minute. Thirty-two thousand men are clamouring to go into battle before they do.

“Hang on, chaps,” says Gideon. “I just need to check that this is right!”

It’s easy to imagine the murmuring – “We’re here; the enemy is there; the Lord is obviously with us, what’s to check?” – but as we know from the verses that follow, the Lord had other plans.

This section of the story is probably the one that is most frequently referred to in the Church, when people are seeking God’s will over difficult decisions. Rather like casting lots, we “lay out a fleece” to see if God’s will can be discerned through the outcome of events: “I’ll do x-y-z, Lord; and if a-b-c happens I’ll take that to be a sign from You to go ahead with this plan I’m considering”.

In our times it tends to be something of a last resort: if we’re not sure that we’ve heard from God, we “lay out a fleece”. It can almost be as if we’re twisting the Lord’s arm – “God, you’ve got to answer me now! I’ve laid out this fleece, and whichever way things turn out I’m going to read Your will into it!” At this point, we have forgotten Isaiah 59:1 – “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” The arm of the Lord is not too short, nor His ear too dull. If any ears are dull, it will be ours.

The first point about the fleece is that Gideon most definitely has heard from God. Not only has he heard, but he has seen Him face to face and been told that he would not die. He has seen fire from heaven consume his sacrifice. He has felt the anointing of the Holy Spirit come upon him when he blew the trumpet. He has seen the very men who were going to kill him for breaking down the altar to Baal gather behind him, ready to follow him into battle. Gideon cannot be desperate for a sign.

“So Gideon said to God, ‘If You will save Israel by my hand as You have said – look, I shall put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.’” (Judg. 6:36-37)

Why then, after the power encounter that Gideon had experienced, was Gideon still so uncertain? The answer
can be found a few chapters back in the book of Judges, following the death of Joshua.

“When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel.” (Judg. 2:10)

Gideon had met the Lord, but he did not know Him. He was one of a succession of judges that the Lord raised up to deliver His people each time they did evil in His sight and turned to the gods of the Canaanite people. Generation after generation, the pattern was repeated: Israel provoked God to anger by turning away from Him and worshipping the Baals; He allowed them to fall into the hands of raiding tribes; they called out to Him in desperation; He took pity on them and raised up a judge for their deliverance. So by the time of Gideon they had already been rescued by Othniel, Ehud and Deborah, but they had learnt nothing, and fallen back into the ways of the people of the land.

Even today, with the empowering help of the indwelling Holy Spirit, how difficult it can be to make a stand for Jesus, and to separate ourselves from the ways of the world around us – even though James tells us clearly that friendship with the world is enmity for those who belong to God.

So Gideon had grown up among a people immersed in godless ways, who knew that Israel had a God who had delivered them in the past and who probably believed that if they cried long and loud enough He would probably deliver them again; but until then they were probably prepared to put up with the hardships they were enduring because the availability of easy pleasure with the people of the land was simply more tempting than seeking the ways of the God of their fathers. When Gideon met with God, he quickly discovered His requirements, but he knew nothing of His character. Asked the question today, “Will God do as He has said?”, any Christian will quote verses of scripture to show that if there is one thing we can be certain of about our God, it is that He is faithful, and that He will perform His word. For Gideon, this attribute was hidden. We cannot look at Old Testament encounters with New Testament eyes.

Looking forward prophetically to the days we live in now, Daniel said, “People who know their God shall . . . carry out great exploits” (Dan. 11:32). Gideon was being called to do exploits without the security of that knowledge of Him. At the same time, everything in Scripture is there for our instruction, so we can look at the episode of the fleece and learn from it. Clearly Gideon learnt enough to carry out one of the most famous “exploits” in Old Testament history. I believe that the two occasions of laying out the fleece can help equip us for the exploits that God has planned for us today. The fleeces do not show us what to do: they show us who we are.

Wet fleece, dry ground

“Look, I shall put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said.” (Judg. 6:37)

When Gideon rose early the next morning, he found that the fleece was wet and the ground was dry. He wrung a bowlful of water out of it. I have just seen a video of someone being baptised in the sea. He walked out of the waves, and stood on the dry sand, dripping with the waters of his baptism into Christ. Baptism symbolises the death of the old self and the birth of the new creation, immersed in Christ and set apart from the world. In the picture of the wet fleece laid out on the dry threshing floor we have an Old Testament type of baptism, and its significance for the new birth: set apart, filled with the Spirit, and ready to bring living water into the dry places of the world. As well as knowing that He will do as He has said, knowing our God is also knowing what He has already done: that He has not only “raised [Christ] from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20), but that He has also raised us up together with Him (Eph. 2:6), and that in Christ we are seated together with Him in heavenly places as well. We are not only set apart from the world in order to remain uncontaminated by it; we are set apart from the world because, in Christ, we have been seated in Heaven.

In today’s world this distinction between the Church and the world is not always apparent. Although, as Jesus said, we are not “of the world”, we can sometimes be so immersed in it that it is hard to tell one from the other. Although in some parts the Church is being restored to New Testament values, in others it is not so different from the Israelites of Gideon’s day, who knew of the God of their fathers but were married to the world around them – and under assault from it.

Peter writes that we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). If we are uncertain of the wisdom of a particular choice, and are seeking God’s will for the way forward, we need to think about the wet fleece and ask ourselves the question: will those in the dry places of the world see that we are God’s special people, or are we just as dry as they are?

The wilderness of Edom

It is easy enough to find ourselves in a place that is as dry as the desert sand. Our first encounter with the prophet Elisha, after he has taken on Elijah’s mantle, is when the kings of Judah, Israel and Edom went together to do battle with Moab (the story is in 2 Kings 3). They decided to march by way of a roundabout route, through the wilderness of Edom. We read there was no water, either for the army or their animals. What their reasoning was for taking this route we will not know until that day when we know all things; but we do know that after seven days they realise that they have made a big mistake. How often, when things are going wrong, do we stop in our tracks and realise that we have gone ahead on something without prayer? Jehoshaphat did:

“But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no prophet of the Lord here, that we may inquire of the Lord by him?’ So one of the servants of the king of Israel answered and said, ‘Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Elijah.’” (2 Kgs 3:11)

As with all the events surrounding the life and ministry of Elisha, there are many aspects and layers to this story and much to learn from it; but in the context of Gideon’s victory and the picture of the wet fleece, the important element here is that God not only brought water into the dry place, but also used that water to bring about the defeat of the Moabites. If we know our God, we know that He promises to “pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground” (Isa. 44:3). If our streams have dried up, we always know where to turn for living water. Our Elisha, the Lord Jesus, is always with us to bring deliverance.

Paul told the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:17) to “pray without ceasing”, and he told the Ephesians (Eph. 6:18) to be “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit”. More than most, Paul knew the necessity of a prayerful life, which is why he exhorts us to keep our fleeces wet – to “be (being) filled with the Spirit”. This is an imperative that we must not ignore. But that with which we are filled is there to be squeezed out into whatever “bowls” the Lord set before us; not to leech into the dry ground or evaporate in the heat. Jehoshaphat was a godly king, but he was in the company of lesser men, the idolatrous kings of Samaria and Edom; and it was in the wilderness of Edom that he finally came to his senses and turned to the Lord. He had become as dry as the people around him: he had lost his distinctiveness. So as Christians, and particularly those of us whose work means that we spend a lot of time among the lost, let us not come to a halt in the wilderness of Edom, even though grace is there for us when we do: effective spirit-filled ministry requires not only that we lead a prayerful life, but that we maintain a spirit-filled lifestyle, and in doing so retain the conspicuous identity of who we are in Christ.

Wet ground, dry fleece

An old friend from Gloucestershire, whom I see occasionally at prophetic gatherings, had a vision recently. In the vision she heard the sound of an old-fashioned typewriter, very loud, filling the room with the clack-clack-clack sound of the keys on the paper. Then she saw the typewriter, an old black upright machine. According to the way she told the story, there was no hand actually on the typewriter, but words were being formed. Instead of coming out of the top, the paper was coming out of the side, so the message was creating a banner. It said – this was in normal sized type –

“Some of my people are living dangerously”

Then in very large letters, the single word: MIXTURE

Some of us are mixing the flesh and the spirit; the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Perhaps a public ministry – and a little bit of private sin. Declaring God’s faithfulness – and being faithless in marriage. God in our Sunday conversations and in our quiet times – and a critical spirit and judgemental tongue for those close to us at other times. There are many ways of living this mixture, but there is only one truth: “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another” (Gal. 5:17).

Isaiah exhorts God’s people (Isa. 48:20) to “Go forth from Babylon”, and many scholars read this as being an exhortation to be separate from the world’s systems. Looking to the book of Revelation, when the cry goes out from the third angel that “Babylon has fallen”, we read that anyone who receives the mark of the beast “shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (Rev. 14:10). There is no certain interpretation of these scriptures, but one thing is clear: as God’s chosen people we have been called out of the world, its systems and its ways; out of darkness and into the “marvellous light” of the Lord Jesus. Anything that is not separation is mixture, and God tells us that mixture is dangerous. And so, from the other side, we come back to the fleece, which on the second night was not touched by the water all around it.

If we are searching the Scriptures for promises of divine protection, the first stop for many of us is likely to be Psalm 91, which begins with the wonderful words: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” In Psalm 91 we find promises of protection from many forms of untimely death, we find angels keeping us from harm, we find deliverance, salvation and long life in our God. When He is our refuge, nothing “out there” can touch our fleece. But we do have to read all these promises of refuge in the context of the first line. God’s love is unconditional. God’s grace is unconditional. Salvation is by grace and not by works, “lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:9). The cross is unconditional. Yet many of God’s promises still require our response if we are to find their ultimate fulfilment: to receive all the protection that the secret place of the Most High affords, we do need to dwell there; and we cannot bring the ways of the world and the lusts of the flesh into the refuge with us.

If we look at the conquest of Jericho again we can see that this principle also is illustrated in that famous victory: when Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan he knew that the Jericho lay before them – he would not have been unaware of it on his spying trip forty years previously. But the preparation that God had in mind for the battle ahead was not fitness training or weapons drill: it was circumcision. We read in Joshua 5 how he took flint knives and circumcised the army, who stayed in the camp until they were healed. Any enemy falling upon this vulnerable group of men would have probably annihilated them, but this was a consecrated army in obedience to God: they were truly dwelling “in the secret place of the Most High”, and thus they were invincible. And when they moved out into battle, their obedience alone was enough to cause the walls to fall.

So in the two episodes of the fleece we see a man called to do exploits, but who did not know his God; and we see ourselves, the sheep of His pasture, who do know our God, but on the whole do not do many exploits. And we see our God, revealing Himself to Gideon and to the Church. He says: “Do you want My power? Soak yourselves in my Spirit. Do you want My protection? Consecrate yourselves.”

So next time we consider “laying out a fleece”, we need to remember that the fleece doesn’t show us what to do; it shows us who we are in Christ. Gideon moved on from here. Let us walk with him to the River.

Bob’s book, “Wheat in the Winepress,” published by Malcolm Down Publishing, will be available from Amazon and Christian bookstores when they start selling books again, but you can also buy it now (£10.99, postage free) through the Crossbow Education website if you click HERE.)

Wheat in the Winepress is an in-depth study of the story of Gideon (pp 345) from Judges 7-8. Read below what some leaders have already said about it.

“An inspiring read about victory, practical spirituality, and the life of faith, Wheat in the Winepress will invigorate your faith, stir your hope and bring wisdom to your life. I love Bob’s easy-reading style, that takes spiritual realities and powerful mysteries and makes them understandable to the every-day reader. Be ready to be transformed as you read!”
Jarrod Cooper, Senior Leader, Revive Church, Hull, England.

“Using vivid illustrations out of his own experiences from decades of following Jesus, Bob makes the Biblical story of Gideon come alive for today.”
Jeremy Simkins, leader of Christ Central churches (part of New Frontiers).

“Bob Has captured the atmosphere of the life of Gideon. It is as though he has climbed into the man’s heart and mind and pulled out descriptions, discoveries and revelations that are so relevant to our lives today. I would highly recommend this volume.”
Andrew Baker, founder, Make Way Ministries.

The quest for the Presence of God

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