The book of Judges is an account of one of the darkest periods in the history of God’s people. Armed with His promises but weak in faith, the first generation to enter the Promised Land convinced themselves it was too hard to drive out the Canaanites. Defeat became a way of life. Settling down to live with the enemy, God’s people continued to speak His name, but they forgot who He is and what He had called them to do. The God of Abraham and Moses was reduced to a place of mere recognition among the gods in this world. Exclusive devotion to God disappeared.
But the God of grace and mercy did not forget His people. Keeping His promises to their forefathers, He pursued a very lost generation. Sending years of pressure into their lives, the Father waited on His people to cry out to Him… to genuinely turn away from all of the gods of Canaan, and to return to Him with all their heart. Hearing their cries, the Father would then send a deliverer – called a “judge” — to go against and remove the disciplinary oppression of God’s people. This cycle of forgetting God when at peace and remembering God when under distress is repeated by the people until it seems darkness has triumphed. However, by the end of the book, God’s people have stopped crying out. There is no happy ending… Judges is not a “feel good” story about the natural condition of the human heart.
During one of the cycles, the Midianites were invading the land during the annual harvest. As soon as the Israelite crops were ready to be brought in, the parasitic oppressors would arrive, driving God’s people into the hills, and destroying everything Israel had earned in that year. This went on for seven seasons. Then the Bible reports: “And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD.” (6:6)
And He heard their cry.
A young man named Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press. Hiding his meager efforts to keep some of the harvest for his family, Gideon was not on a mission to oppose the enemies of God’s people. He was just trying to get ahead. He was a product of his age. A farmer. A survivor. An idolater.
To get ahead in Gideon’s day meant doing business with the local gods. Asserting that they controlled the weather and the harvest, Canaanite deities had to be appeased if you were going to be successful. If you wanted to trade with Canaanites and marry their daughters, you had to show some respect for their beliefs and values. So you kept your identity as a devotee of Yahweh, but you engaged other gods too, unconsciously embracing a Canaanite worldview.
Years later the Psalmist described the creeping syncretism that was blinding the people of God…
“They did not destroy the peoples, as the LORD commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.” Psalms 106:34-38
The altars of Canaan were used for child sacrifice and sexual perversion on a massive scale. The people of God had become Canaanized in every aspect of their lives. In the sight of God it was sin (3:7, 12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1). In their minds, it was the right and sensible way to live (17:6, 21:25).
In order to go on God’s mission, Gideon first needed to know God. God cannot be just another “priority” in a busy life. God does not hang around just to bail us out of our latest predicament. God does not exist for us.
We exist for Him.
He will never be satisfied with the tiny spaces given him by His people (then or now)… to exist as one god among the “gods” in our cultural pantheon. I can’t give him a few minutes of reflection on Sunday, and then live as if He doesn’t exist the rest of the week, sacrificing my life on a dozen other altars in my heart, and doing what everyone else does (unthinkingly) to be happy and get ahead. He will not accept anything less than all of my devotion. Jesus said it this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
As Gideon begins to understand this truth, he builds a personal altar to Yahweh. But it’s not enough. He has other idols roaming around in his life. Listen…
Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace… That night the LORD said to him, “…pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the LORD your God…” Judges 6:24-26
There can only be one altar in my heart… not two. If Gideon… or anyone… begins to draw near Him, the other gods of the heart must be decisively evicted. Why? If He is who He says He is… the one true God and Creator and Sovereign Lord of all creation (including me)… then He alone can be trusted to tell me the truth about my life.
All the other “gods” are nothing more than powerless pretenders and silver-tongued liars to the human race. Fake gods are not worthy of my faith. All they can do is promote a self-actualized distortion of my humanity, pushing an illusion of happiness to dispel the deep foreboding undertow of hopelessness… calming me with a few fairy tales on the road to hell.
Yes, every other altar must be torn down until only one remains.