Phil Vischer grew up in a family in which dinnertime conversation was about people who had done great things for God around the world. His maternal great-grandfather was the first non-denominational radio preacher in America, who preached every Sunday morning on the radio from 1923 until his death in 1964. Another relative was the first European missionary into a particular section of Irian Jaya, who ministered the gospel among a tribe of cannibals. His mother had a doctorate in biblical studies. He knew that he was destined to do something great for God, but he didn’t know what.
Growing up, he was a creative storyteller but could never quite figure out how that would fit into doing great things for God. Watching MTV, and observing the ungodly messages that were being broadcast to young people, he wondered if he could create televised stories for children that would relate a gospel message.
After high school, he went to a Bible college where every student was expected to be involved in some form of community outreach. The school offered a list of opportunities to select from. As he scanned down the list he became increasingly concerned that nothing fit what he was comfortable with. He didn’t want to visit the elderly in retirement homes because he felt awkward around strangers. Open air evangelism was not for him. But right near the bottom of the list, something that caught his attention: puppet ministry.
He met another student named Mike and together the two of them took charge of the school’s puppet ministry. They had so much fun and spent so many late nights writing new scripts and stories that they were eventually expelled from Bible college for failing to maintain attendance at chapel.
Shortly after he was married, Vischer managed to secure a computer that allowed him to do animation. This opened up a whole new vista of opportunities for him. In the early days of computer-generated animation, when it was difficult to animate limbs, he realised that the best approach would be to animate a limbless, hairless figure. He settled for chocolate bars.
As he was animating his first chocolate bar, his wife walked past and pointed out that some parents might object to making their children fall more in love with chocolate bars than they already were. Conceding her point, he started to think about what he could animate that parents would not object to. The solution turned out to be a cucumber, and so was born Larry the cucumber and, a short while later, Bob the tomato. And what would they call a TV show about a talking tomato and cucumber? Why, VeggieTales, of course!
Vischer was convinced that this is what God was calling him to do and so he quit his job and began animating fulltime. He was persuaded that God would bless his efforts, since this was his calling. But things started off slowly. He recalls one month when he was down to his last $10 with a mountain of unpaid bills. Dog food cost $10 and when his wife told him that they were out of dog food, they had to decide whether to buy food for the dog or for themselves. He told her to spend the money on the dog.
When she left the house to go buy the dog food, he sat at the dinner table in despair. He could not understand why God was not blessing him. As he rifled through a pile of unpaid bills, he came across an envelope with no return address. Opening it, he found $400 and a note saying that God had laid it on the giver’s heart to give the money to him. His vigour was renewed. It was God’s sign that he was doing the right thing.
At first, VeggieTales was sold on VHS only in Christian bookstores, which meant perhaps 400–500 sales per month. Vischer was still living hand to mouth. Then, in December 1996, something happened: Walmart asked if they could sell VeggieTales and suddenly things exploded. Within a short period, Vischer had formed Big Idea Productions and started hiring additional writers, voice talent, and animators. Before long, Big Idea Productions was worth $44 million. Vischer was primed to become the Christian Walt Disney with a line of TV shows, films, toys, and even a VeggieTales theme park.
Before long, however, things started to come apart at the seams. A decision was taken to stop producing TV shows to instead focus on the first VeggieTales feature film about Jonah. The film did reasonably well, but by that time Big Idea Productions was so deep in debt that the day after the premier Vischer was forced to fire half his staff. Not long after that, he found himself sitting in a courtroom, sued by the parent company of Barney the purple dinosaur.
He was still persuaded that God was on his side and that, as with the dog food incident, God would step in at the last minute to bail him out. When the court handed down its verdict, Vischer was ordered to pay $14m in damages and was forced to surrender the rights to his VeggieTales creation.
He tells the story in his autobiography (Me, Myself, & Bob) and talks about the difficult lessons that he learned in this time. Two years later, he founded another production company and called it Jellyfish Labs. Of his inspiration for the name, he writes,
Jellyfish can’t locomote. They can’t choose their own course. They can go up a little, and they can go down a little, but to get anywhere laterally—to go from point A to point B—they have to trust the current. For a jellyfish, long-range planning is an act of extreme hubris. Lunacy, really. And so it is for me. I believed I could change the world, and the weight of that belief almost crushed me. But guess what—apart from God, I can do nothing. I can’t get anywhere. I’m useless. Spineless. Without form. My ability to accomplish anything good is dependent on my willingness to dwell in the current of God’s will. To wait on God and let him supply my form and my direction. Like a jellyfish.
While running Big Ideas Productions, Vischer recalls that he acted differently. People noticed that he wasn’t the same person. He had begun to think differently, act differently, and make uncharacteristic decisions. Ultimately, it was because, while he was bringing God into things, he was actually pursuing his own agenda.
In the text before us, we see a story of a man pursuing a hidden agenda. While that hidden agenda is only revealed toward the end of the narrative, there are clues scattered throughout the story that something is not quite right. He behaves differently in this narrative than he has before it, and the clues all coalesce toward the end of the story when his agenda is finally revealed to be something quite different to God’s agenda.
In our last study in the book of Judges, we saw Gideon at his best. There, we found a man who recognised his own weakness and relied on God’s strength to accomplish God’s purposes. God worked mightily through him so that he could truly be described as a hero of the faith (Hebrews 11:32). Sadly, the text before us now portrays him in a far less flattering light. We have a very different saviour before us, who behaves in a very different way, with a very different motivation. The text is structured in such a way that it, first, gives us two clues as to Gideon’s pursuit of a different agenda, before it confirms his different agenda, and then offering a conclusion to this part of the narrative.
The Clues to Gideon’s Agenda
First, in vv. 4–9, we find two clues that point toward Gideon’s pursuit of a different agenda.
And Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the 300 men who were with him, exhausted yet pursuing. So he said to the men of Succoth, “Please give loaves of bread to the people who follow me, for they are exhausted, and I am pursuing after Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.” And the officials of Succoth said, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” So Gideon said, “Well then, when the LORD has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will flail your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers.” And from there he went up to Penuel, and spoke to them in the same way, and the men of Penuel answered him as the men of Succoth had answered. And he said to the men of Penuel, “When I come again in peace, I will break down this tower.”
A Different Following
The first clue to Gideon’s hidden agenda is that he had a different following. In the account before us, we find him backed only by his initial three hundred followers and unable to muster any other support.
Previously, we noted that Gideon had awoken that morning on quite the high. When God had first appeared to him, he had doubted his ability to lead God’s people and their willingness to follow him. Indeed, when the Lord had called him to destroy the altar of Baal, he had been so fearful of how the people might respond that he had done it at night (6:28–32). Initially, the people had indeed been upset—until his father had intervened and suddenly they were on his side.
This seems to have boosted his confidence because, when the Midianites arrived for their annual raid, “he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. And he sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, and they too were called out to follow him. And he sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they went up to meet them” (6:33–35).
Following the miraculous sign of the fleece, Gideon and his followers rested well, and the next morning (the same day as our present text) he rose early with 32,000 followers at his side. The Lord whittled down his following to a mere three hundred, with which he successfully routed the Midianites, but when he called for reinforcements, the people willingly followed him once again (7:24–25).
Earlier this very day, Gideon had found willing followers. The people sensed that he was doing what God had called him to do and willingly followed him. He was in a good space. But now things were different. Gideon was left at this point with only his three hundred “exhausted yet pursuing” men. The reinforcements that he had called had now returned home, unwilling to follow him on this new mission.
To make matters worse, reinforcements were now difficult to find. He sought them in Succoth and in Penuel, but they were hesitant to stand with him. We sense an unsettledness with his potential allies. Hadn’t God given him victory? Why was he now crossing the Jordan out of the Promised Land to pursue the enemy? It seems that his fellow-Israelites just weren’t seeing the value of following him in this particular mission.
A Different Attitude
A second clue to Gideon’s pursuit of his own agenda is his very different attitude. Previously, when confronted by the volatile Ephraimites who were looking for a fight (8:1–3), he had turned their wrath away with a soft answer. Now his attitude was completely different.
Coming to Succoth, and later to Penuel, Gideon made what might be considered a perfectly reasonable request. He was God’s appointed judge, after all, and his followers were hungry. He was still fighting the same enemy. Surely it was reasonable to expect that his fellow-Israelites would help him?
But when they refused, Gideon’s short fuse catches us by surprise. Previously, he had been conciliatory; now he was enraged and vowed vengeance. Something had changed in his demeanour toward God’s people. What was driving that change? It was, as we will see, a different agenda.
The Confirmation of Gideon’s Agenda
If the differences here strike you as strange, the answer seemingly lies in the fact that Gideon now had a completely different motivation.
Punishing Israel’s Enemies
The writer records how Gideon punished Israel’s enemies.
Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with their army, about 15,000 men, all who were left of all the army of the people of the East, for there had fallen 120,000 men who drew the sword. And Gideon went up by the way of the tent dwellers east of Nobah and Jogbehah and attacked the army, for the army felt secure. And Zebah and Zalmunna fled, and he pursued them and captured the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and he threw all the army into a panic.
Gideon’s military insight revealed in the previous story, in which he had strategised the best use of the three hundred men at his disposal, is highlighted here again. Though he was still vastly outnumbered, he waited until the Midianites were lulled into a false sense of security, believing that they were safe from the pursuing Israelites. At just the right moment, from just the right direction (from which they did not expect an attack), he attacked and once again defeated the enemy. This time, the two generals—Zebah and Zalmunna—fell into his hands. With the leaders apprehended, there was little chance that the Midianite coalition would mount another offensive.
We might be fooled at this point into thinking that Gideon was still following God’s agenda. After all, the Midianites had proven to be enemies to God’s people, and the Lord had specifically called him to “save Israel from the hand of Midian” (6:14) and that is precisely what he was doing here—even if he was doing it outside the Promised Land. But the veneer of obedience to God is soon lifted.
Punishing Gideon’s Enemies
The Midianites might have been Israel’s enemies, but the men of Succoth and Penuel were Israelites themselves, not Israel’s enemies. Yet they had personally offended Gideon and he was not about to let that offence lie unpunished. He would deal with them before dealing with the Midianite generals.
Then Gideon the son of Joash returned from the battle by the ascent of Heres. And he captured a young man of Succoth and questioned him. And he wrote down for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven men. And he came to the men of Succoth and said, “Behold Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you taunted me, saying, ‘Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your men who are exhausted?’” And he took the elders of the city, and he took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them taught the men of Succoth a lesson. And he broke down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city.
Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “Where are the men whom you killed at Tabor?” They answered, “As you are, so were they. Every one of them resembled the son of a king.” And he said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the LORD lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.” So he said to Jether his firstborn, “Rise and kill them!” But the young man did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a young man. Then Zebah and Zalmunna said, “Rise yourself and fall upon us, for as the man is, so is his strength.” And Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and he took the crescent ornaments that were on the necks of their camels.
Retracing his steps, Gideon returned to the cities that had refused him help. After kidnapping a young man and extracting information from him, he returned to the cities and taught them the lesson that he had promised. Torture and bloodshed were the order of the day (vv. 13–16). Let us remember that these were fellow Israelites who were facing this treatment from Gideon.
With that lesson out of the way, he turned his attention to the enemy leaders. Initially, he instructed his son to kill the enemy leaders—a sign that he was grooming the “young man” as his successor—but the young man was “afraid” and so, in response to the taunting of Zebah and Zalmunna, Gideon himself rose and killed them, thus effectively putting an end to the Midianite oppression (vv. 18–21).
Perhaps, as you read these verses, you find yourself, as I do, somewhat unsettled by them. Gideon appears a little too short-tempered and, frankly, vicious for our liking. What is going on here? It is helpful to note a few things.
First, there is some significance in the fact that Gideon “crossed over” the Jordan in pursuit of the Midianites (v. 4). Given that the Midianites had previously “crossed the Jordan” into the Promised Land (6:33), this means that Gideon was now exiting the Promised Land in pursuit of the enemy. Strictly speaking, they were no longer a threat to Israel, and yet Gideon pursued despite the fact that his men were utterly exhausted.
Second, notice that God is entirely absent in this particular section. The only reference to the Lord is in Gideon’s twofold vow to make an example of the Israelites who did not come to his aid. While he was giving a nod to the Lord in his planning, there is no indication that the Lord ever gave instruction about pursuing Midian. He did not tell Gideon to threaten Succoth and Penuel, nor is the victory that Gideon achieved against the Midianites ascribed to the Lord. Previously, “the LORD set every man’s sword against his comrade and against all the army” (7:22). Here, Gideon “threw all the army into a panic.” Gideon is the complete focus of this story.
Third, and most tellingly, Gideon’s agenda is explicitly stated in vv. 18–19: “Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, ‘Where are the men whom you killed at Tabor?’ They answered, ‘As you are, so were they. Every one of them resembled the son of a king.’ And he said, ‘They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the LORD lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.’” Gideon was driven not by the command of the Lord but by bloodthirsty revenge. Was his anger understandable? Undoubtedly. Was it justifiable? Possibly. Was it commanded by the Lord? Not at all.
Here is the point: Gideon was driven in this account by his own ambition, not by the word of the Lord. He was pursuing his own agenda, not the Lord’s. He was the furthest thing from a jellyfish we can imagine. At some point, he had stopped relying on and listening to the Lord. He had become a self-made man and things got ugly.
The Conclusion of Gideon’s Agenda
With his revenge complete, the story is brought to a conclusion by showing Gideon finally coming to his senses, even if it is too late.
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.
It is significant that chapter 7 opened by calling Gideon “Jerubbaal” (7:1) but that, throughout this account, he has been known as “Gideon.” As we saw two studies ago, Jerubbaal was the name given to him when he confronted and overcame Baal by destroying his altar. The nickname was a form of mocking Baal: “Let Baal fight back, if he dares!” Sadly, he is no longer Jerubbaal, for the story ends with Baal fighting back—and winning.
Driven by his thirst for revenge, Gideon had proven himself to be strong and capable. The Israelites were impressed and so they approached him with a flattering request: “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” There could be no doubt about it: Israel had been delivered thanks to Gideon’s might.
To his credit, it seems that this request now arrested Gideon’s attention. He seems to have finally realised that he had been pursuing his own agenda and he responded with an attempt to deflect the glory: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” It appears that Gideon now realised that things were getting out of hand. It was time to give glory back to God. Sadly, things had gotten too far out of control to easily arrest the decay.
In his attempt to divert the glory back to God, Gideon asked for the golden spoils that the Israelites had captured in the battle. The people willingly gave what he asked, and he fashioned it into an ephod. This seems to have been a desperate attempt to encourage the people to look back to the Lord. An ephod was a priestly garment by which the high priest could discern the will of the Lord. The priestly ephod was an authorised instrument of worship by which God’s people could obtain guidance and direction. I think that was Gideon’s intention here: to return the people to dependence on the Lord. Unfortunately, his plan backfired quite spectacularly so that “all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” Rather than preventing idolatry, it ended up aiding idolatry. Baal had fought back and won.
Here’s the thing: In this closing account, Gideon had taught his followers how to pursue their own agenda and, when he tried to course correct, he found that it was too late. Brothers and sisters, do not make the same mistake!
Several years ago, a friend, who had been raised consistently in gospel-preaching churches, but who had since abandoned the church, contacted me to ask about our Sunday school ministry. A few months before that, his sister had committed suicide. When his children asked where their aunt was, he replied that she was in heaven, “because that’s where dead people go.” A few weeks later, his eldest daughter, out of the blue, asked if God was dead. Shocked, he tried to correct her, but then asked what made her ask such a question. “You said God is in heaven,” she replied, “and you told us that heaven is where dead people go.” He realised that he had neglected to raise his children with any understanding of biblical truth, and quickly tried to correct it by bringing his daughters to Sunday school.
The problem is, he had raised his children to imitate him in pursuing his own agenda and his sudden course correction failed spectacularly. He found that it was too late to do what he ought to have done all along. Gideon found the same. He tried to course correct, but it was too late.
The section ends with a note of some irony: “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.” This is the last time in Judges that you read of the land having rest and you have the distinct impression that it is in spite of, rather than because of, Gideon’s obedience to God.
The Lesson from Gideon’s Agenda
There is really one simple lesson for us in this text, and it is that, to end well and to point others effectively to Christ, we must pursue God’s agenda rather than our own.
If you are alive, you have an agenda. If you are a middle-aged man, your agenda might look something like this:
- Keep the wife happy. (Happy wife, happy life!)
- Find and keep a decent job that doesn’t frustrate me to death.
- Get the kids into a good school.
- Buy a good house in best suburb I can afford.
- Earn enough money to do items 1–4.
- Have some fun (although items 1–5 will probably stop me doing that!)
If you are a 17-year-old girl, your agenda might look a little different:
- Get a new hair-straightener (good quality GHD ceramic one).
- Deal with the pimple issue once and for all.
- Keep the next boyfriend for more than three weeks.
- Get your driver’s license.
- Avoid eye contact and conversation with your parents wherever possible, while extracting money from them for the above items.
To be fair, those are pretty unchristian agendas. God doesn’t feature anywhere on them. As Christians, we know instinctively that God must feature somewhere on our agenda. Even Gideon mentioned the Lord in pursuing his own agenda. And so we try to insert God into our agenda.
But that is exactly the problem: Our agenda (like Gideon’s) is often very worldly but with a nod to the Lord. This can be manifested at least two ways.
First, we can insert God into our agenda as our ally—the one who is there to guarantee success. Like Phil Vischer. Or like every Kendrick brothers movie you have ever watched. In Facing the Giants we learned that if we just add prayer to our team meetings, our football team will win the championship. In Fireproof we learned that if we just follow certain steps derived from the Bible our marriage will heal itself. There is a common thread. The lesson is simple: Just add God to your agenda and things will work out. And then when things don’t work out as we expected, confusion reigns. I thought God was on my side: Why hasn’t he helped me to achieve my agenda?
Second, we can insert God into our agenda as an agenda item. We still have our own agenda, but we are sure to put him fairly high on the agenda. We try to bring good balance to our agenda. We are sure that if God is not on our agenda, things will not go well, and the higher we put him on the agenda the better we can expect things to go. Of course, God understands that we’re busy, so if we don’t get him too high up the list, he’s not that upset. It really is about us, after all. So church attendance and Bible reading and prayer feature on our agenda—if nothing more important crops up. We’ll keep church on our agenda, as long as the service finishes in time for me to rush home and catch the World Cup semi-final.
Of course, those two approaches share the same problem: They are fundamentally unchristian. The Christian life isn’t about trying to fit God into your agenda, but about completely surrendering to his agenda. Rather than trying to squeeze him into our list of priorities, we should heed the words of Paul: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). The apostle explains that this agenda item will affect our marriage (3:18–19), our parenting (3:20–21), our work (3:22–4:1), and our witness (4:2–6). When God is your agenda (rather than a part of your agenda), it changes the way that you approach all of life.
What does God’s agenda look like? Solomon asked this question as he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes. He reflects on the way that he had spent much of his life pursuing his own agenda and found it all to be futility. And he came to a firm conclusion. God’s agenda really has two items on it: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
According to Solomon, there are two items on God’s agenda, and an important motivation for keeping it.
The first item on God’s agenda is simply to “fear God” (v. 13). Oswald Chambers said, “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that, when you fear God, you fear nothing else; whereas, if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.” What does it mean to fear God? For those who do not know God in Jesus Christ, it means fearing him as their righteous judge. For those who do know God in Christ, it means revering him as their Father. Regardless, it is “the whole duty of man” to fear God.
The second item on God’s agenda is to “keep his commandments” (v. 13). God is the creator of all that is, and therefore everything that exists—including you and me—is under his authority. Everybody is responsible to obey God’s commands. For the unbeliever, this means obeying God’s command now to repent, for God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). God’s word tells us that he is holy and hates sin, but that we have all sinned and therefore stand in danger of eternal judgement. But God provided a way for us to escape this eternal death and experience eternal life. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, as our substitute, to live a perfect life, die a sacrificial death, and rise victoriously from the grave so that sinners who repent of their sins and receive him as Lord and Saviour can inherit eternal life. And this is more than a mere offer: It is a command. “God now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). And when we have repented and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, he calls us to live a life of consistent obedience to him. He calls us to forsake our own agenda and follow him in full obedience.
Solomon then gives the reason that we should follow God’s agenda: because that is how we prepare for final judgement: “For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (v. 14). It is crucial to hear this call to fear God and keep his commandments because there is a day of judgement coming. There is a day coming in which Jesus Christ will stand as the perfect, righteous judge over all humanity. On that day, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected to face judgement. Some will inherit eternal life; others will face eternal punishment. Some will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant—enter the joy of your Lord.” Others will hear, “Depart from me, worker of iniquity, into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The difference is, what will you do with Jesus Christ? That choice is before you now: Repent of your sins and receive eternal life; or reject God’s offer of free salvation and face eternal judgement. Don’t put it off. Now is the accepted time. Today is the day of salvation.