“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.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isa. 9:4-5).
I love the weirdness and awkwardness of the original Christmas story. Joseph and Mary almost get divorced when Mary ends up pregnant (Matt. 1:19). And don’t tell me it wasn’t a hot topic of gossip in the itty bitty backwater town of Nazareth when this unwed teen was with child. I grew up in a small town; I know how the eye-rollings and acidic whisperings go down, especially among the religious.
Then there’s the taxing trip down south to Bethlehem. Birth pangs and baby cries in the small hours of the night. Strange shepherds showing up with their oddball tale of angels Christmas caroling. And later, the holy family hightailing it out of the country to become expats in Egypt for a few years because, well, the craziest and most powerful person in the whole country, infamous Herod, was foaming at the mouth to have the Christ kid murdered.
What an odd beginning. Jesus hadn’t even reached Kindergarten yet and his life was one strange, awkward, violent scenario after another.
In a way, that is quite appropriate. Centuries before the Word relocated to Mary’s womb, he had some weird, awkward, violent prophecies uttered about him by Israel’s seers. Let’s take a look at one of them from Isaiah. It has to do with army boots, sheep fleece, an unconfident Israelite, and rapacious Midianites.
Well over a millennium before Jesus was born, Israel was in bad shape. How bad, you ask? Bad enough to make people live in caves, living hand to mouth (Judg. 6:1-6). That bad. Why? Their neighbors, the Midianites, along with their cronies, had stomped through the holy land and decimated the crops like a horde of hungry locusts. And not just once. This went on and on, for seven hard years.
In response to his people’s lamentations, the Lord raised up an unlikely hero in the person of Gideon (Judg. 6:11ff). This guy was not exactly Mr. Confidence. Every time the Lord told him to do something, he wanted a sign, then a second sign, to make double sure he had the divine thumbs up before proceeding. Gideon is the one behind the well-known adage of “putting out a fleece” to ascertain the Lord’s will (Judg. 6:36-40).
Then, no doubt to Gideon’s immense consternation, when it was time to muster the troops and cross swords with the Midianites, the Lord told him, “Whoa, there, boss. You’ve got too many men and too many weapons” (cf. Judg. 7:2). That’s right, too many. So after sending home all the scaredy cats, thereby drastically reducing the forces, God kept only the troops that had a peculiar canine-like way of slaking their thirst (Judg. 7:47). In the end, Gideon, who began with a sizable force of 32,000 troops, was left with a whopping 300 soldiers whose only qualification was they lapped water like dogs. Not exactly a general’s dream come true.
But, soon enough, the dream of Israelite liberation did come true. Following the lead of Gideon, his 300 dog soldiers surrounded the Midianite camp under cover of darkness, broke clay jars, held high flaming torches, and filled the air with the blast of shofars. These were their sole “weapons.” The enemy, thrown into confusion by the Lord and engaging in friendly fire, destroyed themselves (Judg. 6:15-22). In the gory aftermath, there would have been garments rolled in blood, the shoes of Midianite soldiers scattered helter-skelter in the camp, and fires burning everywhere.
In other words, on this day of Midian’s defeat, the entire scene would have been perfect fodder for a messianic prophecy. At least, that’s what Isaiah thought.
The Divine Blacksmith
Bearing this whole scene from Judges 6-7 in mind, listen to how the prophet describes the effects of the work and reign of the Messiah: “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. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isa. 9:4-5).
Let’s parse this out. When Isaiah says, “the day of Midian,” he’s using military shorthand for “the day God destroyed Midian under the leadership of Gideon” (cf. Isa. 9:4; 10:26; and Judg. 7:25). Think of how Americans refer, via shorthand, to “Gettysburg” or “D-day.” Same thing here with “day of Midian.”
What happened in that ancient battle? The yoke of the Midianite taskmaster came to an end, as earlier it had in Egypt. The oppressive rod of the enemy was broken by the merciful intervention of God. Warrior’s boots were scattered in the tumult of that battle. Garments splattered with blood were good for nothing but a bonfire. All weapons and accouterments of war, in other words, were incinerated.
As the prophet says earlier in his book, swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks in the gracious forges of the divine Blacksmith.
Isaiah is saying, “So it will be when the messianic child is born, when to us a Son is given. He will be like Gideon but oh-so-much better. As that leader defeated Midian with a burst of light, so when the Prince of Peace comes, the people who walked in darkness will see a great light; those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them his light will shine. In him will be life, and the light will be the life of men. His light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.”
Gideon’s “foolish” weaponry of clay jars and shofars will give way to the Messiah’s “foolish” ways of doing things, for his weapons will be humility, fidelity, and, above all, the word of his Father. He will wield no sword but the Spirit. The government on his shoulders will be a Roman crossbeam, by which he will break the yoke of sin’s burden and the staff of death by which we have been oppressed.
Finally, as Midian destroyed Midian, so death will destroy death by killing the Son of God. The tomb will be entombed. Mortality flatlined. And we, in the resurrection of the Messiah, will stand upright, free in the once-dead now-living Messiah.
The “Movie Trailer” from Judges
The strange and violent story of Gideon, with all its awkward moments thrown in, was a kind of “movie trailer” for the full film of the Messiah. Already in Judges, the Lord of history was providentially foretelling and foreshadowing the greatest victory yet to be.
Now, I get it. Judges will never be the kind of book we read while sitting around the tinseled Christmas tree and drinking hot cocoa with the kiddos. But once, long ago, when a prophet named Isaiah mounted his Jerusalem pulpit to prophecy about the Child born to us, the Son given to us, he preached about the Messiah with his scroll open to the wild world of Judges.
It turns out that every story in the Old Testament, when read aright, always leads us to the same place: Jesus our Savior.