What’s the Key to Success? 

Life often reminds me of the first time I remember flying a kite as a kid. My entire focus was on getting the kite in the air. I kept running back and forth, as fast as I could, dragging the kite behind me, hoping it would eventually take off and soar. I don’t know how long I kept trying and failing, but I do remember needing to take multiple breaks to catch my breath before trying again. Eventually, after incredible effort, the kite got airborne! I started to let the string out, and the kite started to make its climb higher and higher. I was so excited that I started shouting in joy. Suddenly, for no clear reason, the kite made a nosedive into the ground and broke apart. 

Success. Many people spend their entire life driven toward success. In school, students push themselves for grades and academic honors; in the workforce, employees push themselves for promotions, raises, and success. So much of life is spent trying to get our proverbial kite up that we forget to figure out how to keep our kite up. Every day, our headlines are filled with successful people whose life, like my kite, has taken a nosedive. Beautiful weddings end in bitter divorces; celebratory baptisms end in compromised apostasy; the growing company ends up filing for bankruptcy; the celebrity influencer ends up addicted and broken. 

Thus far in the Gideon story, he’s gotten his kite up. Jesus came down from heaven to meet with him, call him to lead a military resistance movement against terrorist invaders as a judge, clothe him in the Holy Spirit, and give him a supernatural victory as 300 of his men defeated 135,000 of their enemies. At this point, Gideon’s kite is soaring. In chapter 8, however, the kite that is his life takes a nosedive. 

This scene starts with a conflict between Gideon and members of his clan, or extended family, and like most extended families, doing life and business together got complicated. Rather than celebrate Gideon’s victory following the capture of Oreb and Zeeb, the Ephraimites publicly criticize Gideon for not including them in his battle plans much earlier in the conflict, because they could have possibly been able to cut off the fleeing Midianites and prevent their escape. Basically, Gideon’s relatives are jealous of his success, feel left out of an influential position compared to the other clans, and want to get some of the glory for themselves. In what is an ancient riddle of sorts, Gideon gives them a backhanded compliment; they are not smart enough to rightly understand it and wrongly conclude he is honoring them, and the conflict subsides. Gideon flatters them, downplays his success, and by assuring their pride defuses the conflict. 

This shift in the war corresponds with a shift in Gideon. In the ensuing scenes, God is silent. Gideon is not acting out of obedience to the Lord; instead, he is acting on his own. To use language of the New Testament, in this season of his life Gideon remains a believer but goes from living in the Spirit to living in the flesh. 

Arriving in the town of Succoth, Gideon asks for food to sustain his army. The local leaders deny his request, possibly because they are surrounded by Midianite forces, unsure of the ultimate outcome of the battle, and fearful of reprisal. Nonetheless, their denial infuriates Gideon, who vows to return in vengeance, saying, “I will flail your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers.” Gideon and his soldiers then proceed to the nearby town of Penuel “and spoke to them in the same way, and the men of Penuel answered him as the men of Succoth had answered.” Gideon once again became enraged and publicly vowed to return after his victory and “break down this tower.” Importantly, Gideon is threatening to return to two towns with an armed militia to inflict damage not on the enemy but on members of his own nation. 

Gideon and his 300 men fight on, eventually overtaking the 15,000 enemy troops who had fled with the two kings of Midian – Zebah and Zalmunna – as the other 120,000 were already dead from the conflict. Now an undefeated liberating warrior, Gideon is at the pinnacle of power. Rather than stop to worship God for making all of his success possible, Gideon instead returned to the town of Succoth that refused to feed his troops, called a public meeting, and berated the elders of the town because “you taunted me,” and then “he took the elders of the city, and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them taught the men of Succoth a lesson.” The ancient reader would be well aware that Succoth was where Jacob wrestled with Jesus. Therefore, this was considered an ancient holy site and place where God was to be worshipped. This would have been the perfect place for Gideon to stop and worship Jesus Christ in thanks for the military victory, but, sadly, that is not the case. Instead, he flogs the leaders of the city a bit like Jesus Christ would later be publicly humiliated through flogging; as one English translation (NIRV) says, “He tore their skin with thorns from desert bushes.” 

After publicly humiliating the older men leading in that town, Gideon then returned to the town of Penuel, where “he broke down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city.” Gideon is now attacking cities in his own nation and killing its citizens who are his countrymen. Modern readers will be tempted to blame his outbursts on exhaustion, the trauma of war, or even a justified insurrection, but the truth is we do not hear God speaking to Gideon or hear Gideon speaking to God in prayer or worship. Gideon is acting on his own. 

Gideon struggled with bitterness and vengeance. Look up the following Scriptures about these sins (Matthew 6:14-15, Ephesians 4:25-32; Hebrews 12:14-15).

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