Gideon, fresh off the battlefield, seems to be growing in wisdom and maturity as he rejects the offer to rule over Israel as king. It is an offer that certainly would be appealing to Gideon, encouraging the people to instead look to God Almighty as the Ruler of Israel (Judg. 8:2–23). It is a wise choice and a message that Israel desperately needs to hear during the years of the judges (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). And when we’re honest with ourselves about Gideon, we have to admit that we would welcome a little maturity from him. He hasn’t had a great track record up until now. He doubted the angel of the Lord (Judg. 6:17). He so feared the men of his own family and city that he waited until the cover of night to carry out the Lord’s command to demolish the altar of Baal (Judg. 6:27). And the laying out of the fleece, no matter how some Christian circles have used it as a metaphor for discerning God’s will, is nothing more than Gideon’s unbelief on parade before a God of profound patience. No, Gideon is no paragon of piety, no exemplar of faith or godly leadership. Gideon serves to illustrate the point of the book of Judges—God, by His mercy, uses very flawed men to rescue His very flawed people. And yet it appears as if Gideon has finally grown with this seemingly humble denial of the throne of Israel. We will, however, find that we have every reason to be skeptical about Gideon.
Even Gideon’s next request of the men of Israel doesn’t seem out of place (Judg. 8:24). A worker is due his wages, and Gideon is due his gold, a legitimate bounty for the conquering hero, a hero we might expect to vanish into the countryside as a now wealthier citizen-soldier. But again, our knowledge of the book of Judges teaches us to expect otherwise. Influence, opportunity, wealth, and an idolatrous heart conspire to Gideon’s ruin. Gideon’s heart, woefully lacking in integrity and faithfulness, leads him to breach the second commandment even as his hands fashion a golden ephod. This isn’t a sin of omission, a momentary lapse in a time of great temptation. It is no small task to turn gold jewelry into an ephod. This is rank, studied apostasy. So much for Gideon’s commitment to the sovereign rule of Almighty God over Israel. Nor is this a private sin. Gideon’s popularity is such that all Israel “whore[s] after” the ephod (Judg. 8:27), to the point where even his house, his family, was ensnared. Gideon successfully leverages his leadership, his wealth, his divinely wrought victory to bring about national and familial apostasy.
But it isn’t just the consequences of his sin that chart the horrific legacy of Gideon; it is also the context of his sin. Remember what an ephod really was. An ephod was holy garb, prescribed by God to be worn by the priest into the presence of God (Ex. 28:1–4). That ephod spoke dual essential truths. First, it marked the leader of atonement-by-sacrifice. The ephod was the uniform of the man who interceded for God’s people. In the same way that it is dangerous to impersonate a police officer by wearing a police uniform, it was dangerous to impersonate a priest (1 Sam. 13:8–14). The priest was ordained by God to make atonement for the people. Israel was to look to the ephod wearer to know that they could be righteous before a holy God through the mercy of imputation and sacrifice. Second, the ephod was a picture and reminder that a mediator bore them, their very names, into the presence of God. The ephod spoke of the forensic act of atonement, but it also went beyond that, speaking of the restored relationship that God establishes with His people. This was visually represented on the ephod as it bore two stones, set in gold, engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex. 28:9–14). The priest, the liturgical mediator, carried, literally, the names of God's people before the mercy seat of God. The ephod spoke of the twin benefits of God’s grace—atonement accomplished and relationship restored.
So, returning to Gideon, we find something worse than a golden calf. Gideon made an idolatrous image of gold, an imposter to orthodoxy, a mimic of Mosaic mercy, an artifact of apostasy. Ultimately, Gideon crafted a rival mediator. And in the end, his apostasy was a worse idolatry than the wooden altar of Baal he tore down to begin his infamous campaign as Israel’s judge. Baal worship was clear apostasy. Gideon’s golden ephod smacked of almost-religion, even as it stank of God-offending idolatry, a corpse with a poor makeup job. But it was a convincing enough scam to lead all Israel into spiritual adultery. And therein lies its subtle poison.
Gideon’s story is not an isolated, unique train wreck of leadership. Gideon is a study in the pathology of public sin and organizational apostasy. Gideons preach from pulpits, lead Bible studies, write books that make Christian best-seller lists, and sit in pews. But more than that, the temptation to Gideon-like sin could easily confront any of us. Gideon is a warning and a call for us to pursue holiness in Christ.
Gideon reminds us to treasure the second commandment. God, in His mercy, knows what types of idolatry we are capable of. There are best practices for holiness. They are the commandments of God, especially summarized in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. As soon as someone sets an engraving tool to work, as soon as someone conceives of God other than how He has revealed Himself in the Scriptures, there, at that moment, idolatry has begun to extend its icy tendrils, choking out God-prescribed worship. God’s command of “don’t” is God’s love, His protecting “no.” And as Scripture teaches, the second commandment is a spectrum from evil to holiness, giving an implicit “shall” to the explicit “shall not.” Don’t make a graven image. Do regulate all worship by God’s Word alone. An ephod by God’s design and command speaks sweet promises of grace, mercy, and God-wrought righteousness for undeserving sinners. An ephod in Gideon’s living room speaks only judgment and the wrath of God to come.
Gideon is also a stark reminder that what we might call ministry success is no sure sign of God’s blessing on a leader’s life. From all outward appearances, Gideon was walking in the manifest blessing of God—military success, apparent humility in decision making, popularity, wealth, and religious innovation. In reality, Gideon was leaving people worse off than when he started. Worldly success, even within the walls of a church, is never a sure sign of biblical fidelity.
Gideon is a warning to watch out for the poison of lookalike orthodoxy. False religion that looks similar to true religion can be more dangerous than out-and-out idolatry. Orthodoxy is always in the details, never only in the generalities. It isn’t enough to worship just a pretty ephod in a Christian hero’s home. Any detailed look, even a cursory examination, would reveal Gideon’s religion as a sham. It is incumbent on every Christian elder, every Christian church member, to know orthodoxy in its details. As in surgery, so with theology—imprecision kills. And wolves would be easier to spot if they didn’t always put on those sheepskins, those Gideon-ephods.
Last, and most importantly, Gideon reminds us to treasure Christ. Gideon’s false worship was not general and vague. It didn’t just wave a hand at some rival god up in the sky. Instead, it offered a false mediator. The true ephod marked the God-appointed mediators who, in their Levitical office, foreshadowed the Messiah to come, Jesus the Christ. Gideon’s ephod wasn’t just anti-orthodoxy, it was anti-mediator, and so anti-Christ. Gideon’s ephod was an attempt at self-salvation, an exercise in man-made religion. Gideon took his success, his fame, and his wealth and literally worshiped them, inviting others to do the same. It is the story of fallen humanity without Christ.
Yet where Gideon failed, Jesus succeeded. When Satan offered the kingdoms of the world, Jesus denied the temptation with certified humility (Luke 4:5–7). Jesus took all His wealth (2 Cor. 8:9), all His fame (Phil. 2:5–11), and gave it up in humility to offer His life for others, to redeem true worshipers of God (John 4:23–25). Jesus pointed all people to Himself as the only Messiah, the only mediator. Jesus is our Priest, having made atonement for us and carrying our names into the throne room of God. Gideon is the story of a judge’s victory leading to tragedy. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the story of tragedy leading to the Judge’s victory.