Israel walked into the future facing backward. She spoke of ‘what would be’ in terms of ‘what had been.’ She longed for a resurrection and transfiguration of her past in the days of the Messiah. Her hope was in a new genesis, a second Adam, an eschatological exodus. Thus, when Israel’s prophets spoke of the messianic day, they painted the future with the colors of her past.
No prophet did this more than Isaiah. He is often dubbed the Fifth Evangelist, for his sermons form the Gospel skeleton to which the four evangelists add the flesh and blood of Christ’s fulfillment. This framework, however, is itself drawn from earlier biblical writers. Isaiah preached from the scrolls of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and others. Somewhat surprisingly, he even preached from one of the stories in that dark and bloody collage of narratives we call Judges.
Judges is certainly not the first place to which most of us would turn if asked to describe the work of the Messiah. The book is like that cousin with a questionable past everyone dreads will show up at the family reunion. If anything, that’s our go-to book to tsk-tsk Israel for deforming herself into a nation where ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 17:6). Isaiah, however, saw within Judges a foreshadowing of when God would declare us right in his own eyes through Christ. Indeed, in one of Isaiah’s most well-known homilies on the work of the Messiah (9:1’7), he drew from Judges 7. He saw Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites as foretelling the Messiah’s victory. In the ‘day of Midian’ (Isa. 9:4) the prophet foresaw the day of the Messiah. How so? To answer that question, let’s first revisit this story of a hesitant judge, an overwhelming foe, a puny force, and the seemingly foolish weapons God used to rescue his people.
During Gideon’s day, the Lord had once more delivered his rebellious people into the hands of their enemies (Judg. 6:1). The Midianites were a plague, a locust-like horde that devoured all sustenance (6:5). The situation was so dire that when the Angel of the Lord calls Gideon, the young man is ‘beating out wheat in a wine press’ so as to remain below the enemy’s radar (6:11). In Moses-like fashion, Gideon tries to argue his way out of the call, but God’s will is firm. This man’who is the youngest in the family that is least in Manasseh; who, like the Messiah, has ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him’ (53:2); who certainly has no résumé full of military victories’he is the chosen, unlikely candidate for the Lord to use.
It seems at first blush, however, that the Lord has chosen Gideon for a suicide mission. Not only does he lack the requisite qualifications for success, but when an army gathers around him, the Lord sends the majority of them back home. Of the twenty-two thousand soldiers who gather to fight, God whittles it down to a measly three hundred. What’s more, God arms these warriors with nothing but clay jars, torches, trumpets, and mouths. Under cover of darkness, they are to sneak to the enemy’s camp, break the jars, hold up the torches, sound the trumpets, and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon!’ (7:15’18). The story has all the makings of a comedy that will end as a tragedy. But it doesn’t.
When Gideon and his men do as God instructs them, the astonished Midianites cry out, flee, and even turn their swords against one another (7:19’22). Just as the Lord brought down mighty Egypt with a shepherd’s staff and Goliath with a rock and a sling, so he vanquishes Midian with an army that looked more like a high school band that came straight from pottery class. All this he did to remove even a speck of suspicion that Israel’s wisdom, muscle, or weaponry brought about victory. As God told Gideon, he wanted to make sure Israel didn’t boast, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’ (7:2). Indeed, their own plans or works did not save them. Since Israel, in her wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the folly of this military strategy to save those who did believe. God chose foolish weapons to shame the wise; God chose a weak leader to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no Israelite might boast in the presence of God (cf. 1 Cor. 1:20’29).
How did Isaiah read this story of Gideon? It was more than a literary artifact’to him, Judges 7 pulsated with good news. In a highly nuanced exegesis of this section of Judges, the prophet demonstrates that what God did for his people through Gideon was the blueprint for what the Lord would do for his church through a new and better Gideon, who would work a new and better deliverance.
The crescendo of Isaiah’s song in 9:1’7 is that ‘a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (v. 6). But how does the prophet set the stage for this messianic announcement? By dipping his homiletical brush in the colors of Gideon’s story.
Isaiah opens with a depiction of the contempt ‘in former time’ upon ‘the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali’ (9:1). The geographical particularity is important; these are the same territories directly affected by the Midianite invasions of Judges 6. Matthew notes that this is also, quite fittingly, the territory where Jesus began his ministry of enlightening those who dwelt in darkness (4:13’16). The ‘darkness’ and ‘deep darkness,’ contrasted with the light of the Messiah, points our eyes back to the battle of Gideon. There, under nocturnal covering, the Lord wrought victory for Israel through the means of burning torches (7:15’23).
When Isaiah describes the joy of the redeemed, he compares their happiness to those who celebrate the grain harvest and divide spoils of war (9:2). Both metaphors resonate with the Gideon narrative. The Angel of the Lord appears to Gideon while he is threshing grain and while the nation is suffering from agricultural calamity. Yet after the Midianite overthrow, the land enjoys a Sabbath of forty years (8:28), during which harvest time would have once again been a season of joy. Likewise, when Gideon and his men divide the spoils of war (8:24’26), they foreshadow the jubilation that would follow the victory over Israel’s foes when the ‘zeal of the Lord of hosts’ would put the Messiah on the ‘throne of David’ (Isa. 9:7).
Isaiah has been hinting at the stories of Judges 6 through 8, but now he makes the connection explicit: ‘For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian’ (9:4). That the prophet was referring to Gideon’s victory, and not some ambiguous ‘day of Midian,’ is clarified in the next chapter (10:26). There, Isaiah refers to the Lord striking ‘Midian at the rock of Oreb’’Oreb being one of the Midianite leaders whom Gideon slew (Judg. 7:25). Thus, for Isaiah, the ‘day of Midian’ is the day of Gideon’s defeat of Midian.
What, then, is Isaiah preaching? He’s proclaiming that Judges 6 through 8 is a messianic narrative. How the Lord used Gideon foreshadows how the Lord will work salvific victory when ‘a child is born, to us a son is given.’ The Messiah will come to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, shine the torch of his word over this darkened land, enter this harvest field to bring joy to the downcast, grant them the spoils of his own victory, and break the yokes of sin and death that have oppressed his people. Like Gideon, Christ too will overcome the foe with seemingly foolish weapons’an ignominious death upon a cross. But this is the way of our Lord, who makes it clear that it is not our own hand that saves us, but the hand of the one pierced by nails and outstretched in resurrection peace.
For Isaiah, the Scriptures are a literary womb pregnant with christological life. He asks of each biblical chapter, ‘What is the Messiah telling us about himself?’ He is thus exemplary for our exegesis and preaching today. As he saw the Messiah’s conquest in Gideon’s narrative, let us also ask how that conquest is prefigured in Joshua’s win over the Canaanites, Samson’s over the Philistines, and David’s over Goliath. Every God-given victory in Israel’s past is a foretaste of our Lord’s resurrection feast. In the lives of these people and their battles, we see the Spirit sketching in pencil what will appear in full color at the advent of the king.