Around this time of year, we’ll hear the all-too-familiar words. In church. On the radio. Over the speakers as we stroll through the gift-laden aisles. The words are these: “For a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us…And his name will Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” (Is. 9:6). But the words slip through our fingers. We don’t get them. Not fully, not even close. Because we have divorced them from that most R-rated section of the Bible: the dark and bloody and lawless book of Judges.
Unless we step into the hopeless world of Judges, we’ll not get the hopeful message of Isaiah.
Unless we step into the hopeless world of Judges, we’ll not get the hopeful message of Isaiah. For there are six words that imbue this whole section with its true meaning. Six words that launch us backward into Israel’s past, into the midnight epoch of brutality, starvation, and a single scaredy-cat young man who led his nation into the most ridiculous and laughable military mission in the Bible—and, miraculously, came out on top. Here are the six words: “as on the day of Midian,” (Is. 9:4).
Long before Isaiah foretold this Child, this Prince of Peace, in whom the people who walk in darkness will see a great light, and those who live in a dark land will have light shine upon them—long before that, was a young and frightened man named Gideon whom God sent on a suicide mission.
The Suicide Mission
In Gideon’s day, Israel had sunk about as low as you could go. Their enemies, the Midianites, would invade and gobble up every crop Israel dared to sow. During seven years things got so bad God’s people started hiding out in caves (Judges 6:2). These weren’t the best of times and the worst of times. There were simply the worst of times. Israel was on the brink of ultimate despair.
Seeing His people’s suffering, and hearing their cries for help, God did what God is wont to do: He formulated an utterly foolish plan that was doomed to fail. Rather than calling the mightiest and most experienced warrior Israel had, He picked a young man from a no-account family with zero self-confidence (6:15). Rather than sending him out with several battalions of Israel’s Navy Seals, He made him send most of the soldiers packing until he was left with a measly 300 fighters whose sole criterion was they lapped water like dogs (7:5). And rather than arming them with M16s, drones, and the Mother-Of-All-Bombs, God gave them trumpets, clay jars, and torches (7:16). In other words, God sent Gideon and his men on a suicide mission. They were going to be killed in action. They would be slaughtered to a man. This insane plan would never work.
And yet, it did. Gideon and his men snuck down to the Midianite camp camouflaged by darkness. Blasted the trumpets. Smashed the clay jars. Held the torches high. Raised the battle cry. And in the ensuing confusion and mayhem, the enemies of Israel, rather than killing these 300 men, began attacking each other. Midianites stabbed and hacked to pieces other Midianites. The enemy self-imploded. Death was slain by death.
Against all conceivable odds, in the face of certain defeat, engaged in a battle that could not possibly be won, Gideon and Israel were indeed victorious. It was as unexpected as sunrise at midnight. God, who had sent Moses armed with only a shepherd’s staff, who had sent David armed with only a slingshot, and who would send His Son armed with only a cross, sent young Gideon armed with foolish weapons to win a foolish victory to show that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1:20).
Hope is a Nocturnal Animal
And that’s why, when Isaiah was meditating upon how he might get Israel to see that there was hope to come, that despite the oppression of their seemingly unbeatable enemies God would give them victory, this prophet chose to point His hearers (and us) back to Gideon’s day. Back to “the day of Midian,” (Is. 9:4).
As on the day of Midian, when the Lord saved Israel through this “child” and “son” named Gideon, when he broke the “yoke of their burden” and “the staff on their shoulders,” when the boots of the Midianites and their army cloaks were rolled in blood and burned in the fire (Is. 9:4-6)—as on that day, so on the Messiah’s day, God would formulate an utterly foolish plan that was doomed to fail, and yet would mean victory for the world.
Hope is a nocturnal animal. It comes out a night. When we feel trapped, when the demons of guilt and shame have overshadowed our lives, when we stare into the blackness of a life that is on the brink of despair, hope comes walking out of the darkness to be our companion.
And yet what a strange companion hope is! For it doesn’t look like what we envision hope should be. It looks like a baby, swaddled in the darkness of a cold chamber in the backwater town of Bethlehem. It looks like a man who wanders around Israel with a ragtag band of followers, proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near. Hope looks like this same man armed only with a cross, who dies an ignominious death at the hands of His haters.
What a strange companion hope is! For it doesn’t look like what we envision hope should be.
And yet it—or rather, He—is hope itself. He is our new and better Gideon, who follows His Father’s foolish plan that is doomed to fail. And yet doesn’t. The trumpet He blasts is the exhaling sound of absolution for His enemies. The clay jar of His flesh is smashed upon the Roman tree. And the torch held high that fills the world with light is the brilliance of his resurrected body that ushers the fire of hope into our midnight existence. He defeats the Midianite of death by turning death’s sword upon itself.
A Child will be born to us. A Son will be given to us. And in Him, we have hope. The hope that Gideon had, the hope that Isaiah had, is the hope we have. The sure and certain confidence that darkness will not win, for our new and better Gideon, our Messiah, our Jesus, shines into our hearts with the light of His victorious mercy.