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when prosperity may not be a blessing

When God brought Israel out of Egypt and then placed them in the land he had promised Abraham, his intent was that he would be the King of Israel. The people would be largely self-governed, for if they would keep the law of Moses, God would protect them and cause them to prosper. If they would keep the law of Moses there would be little need for formal structures of government as there would be justice and righteousness everywhere. The people did not keep the law of Moses.

Throughout the book of Judges the people turned away from the God of Israel to worship the gods of other peoples. This resulted in their suffering as God removed his protections and blessings from his people. Inevitably the people would cry out to God and he would deliver them, often through “judges”. These judges are not the sort we’re familiar with, though they would administer justice, often in the form of military victory over those who oppressed the people of Israel. One such judge was a man named Gideon. In Judges 6 we see a familiar pattern that results in the need for a judge like Gideon.

The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.

Judges 6:1 ESV

The Midianites, though distantly related to the Israelites as they, too, were descended from Abraham through his second wife Keturah (see Genesis 25:1–4), they were particularly cruel to Israel. Judges 6 says they “would devour the produce of the land and…leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey” (Judges 6:4). In the midst of their suffering the people cried out to God for a deliverer, and he gave them a man named Gideon.

Gideon struggled with faith and with doubt. (Who among us doesn’t!?) When the angel of the Lord appeared to him he questioned why God would allow all these things to happen to his people (6:13). He asked why he would be the one to rescue Israel (6:15). He needed a sign that God would actually rescue Israel (6:17). Though God had been clear, he asked for another sign that God would actually save his people—the famous “fleece” (6:36). Actually, he asked for this sign twice (6:39). Despite his struggle with doubt and his lack of faith, God was patient and kind with Gideon and promised to rescue his people from Midian through Gideon’s hand. To show that it was God and not Gideon who was doing the rescue, God had him reduce his army substantially. A great number returned home, leaving 22,000 (7:3). This was still too many and eventually the number was reduced to just 300 (7:7). Gideon defeated the Midianites and the people of Israel were rescued, and they were all grateful to Gideon:

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” And Gideon said to them, “Let me make a request of you: every one of you give me the earrings from his spoil.” (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) And they answered, “We will willingly give them.” And they spread a cloak, and every man threw in it the earrings of his spoil. And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and besides the collars that were around the necks of their camels. And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family. So Midian was subdued before the people of Israel, and they raised their heads no more. And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.

Judges 8:22–28 ESV

The men of Israel want to make Gideon king, yet Gideon tells them and the Midianites he had just conquered that he would not rule over them, for the Lord should be the King of Israel and of the whole world. Then he asks for gold earrings, and the weight comes to 43 pounds! (Gold is currently worth about $1900 per ounce, making Gideon an instant millionaire in today’s dollars.) He took this gold and made an ephod, or breastplate, out of it, though it is likely that ephod is just a stand-in for a full idol. The ephod was likely placed on the idol. The narrator indicates this by pointing out that “all Israel whored after it” and that “it became a snare to Gideon”. It is likely that this ephod / idol became a source of income for Gideon as people would pay to see it and/or worship it. The text goes further, however.

Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and lived in his own house. Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives. And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech. And Gideon the son of Joash died in a good old age and was buried in the tomb of Joash his father, at Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

Judges 8:29–32 ESV

Jerubbaal—Gideon—lived in his own house, had 70 sons, many wives, and though he had many wives he decided he also needed a concubine. Reading this with our 21st-century eyes may cause us to miss what an Ancient Near Eastern reader would catch immediately: whereas Gideon refused to be king, he immediately began acting as one. He insists that only the God of Israel should be king, yet he immediately politely requests gold, which is really more of the imposition of a tax! He sets up a cult center with an idol for worship. He establishes a large harem but calls them “wives”. These are the actions of Ancient Near Eastern kings!

Verse 28 ends with these words: “And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.” While this is what the people cried out to God for, this rest was not a blessing, for Israel continued to long for other gods. The peace and prosperity brought through Gideon and his hypocrisy only enabled the people to pursue false gods, and with his death their pursuit of idolatry grew even more:

As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. And the people of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side, and they did not show steadfast love to the family of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel.

Judges 8:33–35 ESV

The problem with a largely trouble-free life is such a life enables us to forget how desperately we need God. Prosperity can obscure our utter dependence on God for every breath we take. Smooth sailing can mask the dangers of the water beneath. A life of ease obscures the hard work faithfully following God requires. The problem with an easy life is this: it causes us to begin to suspect that our lack of trouble is either a sign that God is blessing us for being as we are, or that God is okay with us as we are. God’s blessings are always in spite of us, and are always based on his goodness and grace, and we must never confuse this to be a stamp of approval on our sinfulness.

The reality of it all is that in times of blessing and prosperity we must be more vigilant to remain faithful. When times are hard, and we are forced to rely on God, it’s easy to think that if God gets us through that difficulty that maintaining that steadfast faith will, well, just happen naturally. A life of faith and of faithfulness is not natural. It’s supernatural. We must pursue it. We must seek after God when times are good as well as when times are bad. The only difference between the two times is our awareness of our need for him.

We often mistake what a true blessing is. In 1841 British preacher Joseph Philpot preached on the so-called “prayer of Jabez” in which Jabez asks God to bless him. Philpot’s understanding of this prayer is vastly different from the more recent book by that name. In that sermon he argues that while good health, money, and even a good reputation are seen as blessings, they are often very real curses for these things tend to cause us to trust less in God, to seek the creature rather than the Creator. He then said this:

4. But there are apparent curses which often are real blessings. A languishing, AFFLICTED STATE OF HEALTH, so trying and so painful to the flesh, often proves in God’s hands a real blessing. It tends to make the world bitter, pulls down airy visions of happiness sought outside of God, brings solemn thoughts into the soul, and weans the heart from idols. Not that it can do any one of these things, but the Lord uses it as his instrument.

5. So POVERTY is often made a real blessing to a child of God, by being a means of keeping him dependent upon the God of providence as well as the God of grace, and thus leading him into that close waiting upon the Lord, and crying and sighing to him for deliverance, which none but the poor can know. And when the answer comes, he blesses and praises him with joyful lips, and feels a gratitude and love which is in proportion to his former trials.

Joseph C. Philpot, “The Prayer of Jabez”, preached in 1841

In seasons of plenty, whether good health, abundant financial resources, or good relationships, be intentional to recognize that this is from God, and praise him for it while striving to continually trust him in the midst of it. In seasons of suffering and trials and difficulties, cry out to God, trusting in him and in his goodness. Ask for strength and wisdom and perseverance. Also thank him for the reminder through the suffering that he is in control and he is worthy of our trust. Come what may, it is always a good time to live in faith while praising God for who he is.